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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 21:23-31

Are We Saying "Yes" But Living a No!


Appearances are not everything

Macaulay Culkin became one of Hollywood's childhood stars when he portrayed Kevin, that mischievous, playful, innovative and just as cute as he could be son in the Home Alone movies. He taught us the value of family. He taught us how much we can miss the very people who at times drive us crazy. Only a cold-hearted person could not feel a warm glow when Kevin ran into his mother's arms at the end of both movies.

In a follow up movie, The Good Son, Culkin tackled the difficult assignment of playing against his stereotype by portraying a child who only appeared to be a model son. He was polite. He was courteous. He was obedient. He always said yes to his parents and never argued with them. So, when things went wrong around the house they never suspected that he was the culprit. His less charismatic brother suffered the blame. His parents did not discover that appearances were not everything until the end of the movie.

By what authority?

Jesus did not need to wait until the end of the movie to know that the appearances of the religious leaders were not always, what they seemed. He could see through their hypocritical behavior. He heard them utter the religious words but then live irreligious lives. He could hear them say yes, but live a no. So, he told them a story.

The parable has an interesting setting. It was spoken the day after Jesus overturned the money changers tables near the Temple. Jesus was visiting the city of Jerusalem for the week of Passover. It would be his last visit. The spring feast of Passover was the most important religious festival in the Jewish calendar. The feast commemorated the nation's great deliverance from the land of Egypt. People from all over Israel would travel to the Holy City to offer a sacrifice in the Temple. Hundreds of thousands of people would converge on the nation's capital. None of them would bring an animal to slay on the altar. They would have to buy one in the market so the moneychangers and the vendors set up their shops.

The laws of supply and demand forced the people to pay exuberant prices for a lamb or a pigeon. Jews from Gentile nations had to exchange their money for the local currency and pay an additional transaction fee. It was all quite legitimate business. Nothing was illegal. Nothing violated the Ten Commandments. The high priests themselves supervised the entire operation and naturally enjoyed a tidy profit for their work. Every businessman was simply trying to make an honest day’s wage.

But Jesus saw it all as a scam. The poor suffered at the hands of the rich. The business community had turned the most holy of holy days of the year into a commercialized carnival. Their thirst for profit gutted the feast of its spiritual importance. With his righteous anger burning in his heart, Jesus mowed through the market overturning the tables and spilling the money on the streets. He broke the cages setting the animals free. He turned the market into a riot. Thousands of denarii’s were lost that day. The vendors were enraged. The priests were furious. He had disrupted their religious ceremony and threatened their commercial venture. By what right, by what authority did he have to create such a disturbance?

Jesus quietly slipped out of town that night so the authorities had to wait until the next day to confront him. With their coffers only half full and their anger at full boil, the priests and the elders went looking for him. They found Jesus teaching in the midst of a large gathering of people. They did not dare arrest him for fear of the crowd so they unleashed their questions and demanded an accounting for his behavior.

Jesus turned the table on the religious leaders by asking them a question. "Was John's authority from God or man?" It did not take them long to realize that they were trapped. If they said from God, they knew that he would connect his actions to the Baptist’s. Then they would not be able to refute or discipline him. If they said from man, they may be attacked by the angry crowd who was convinced that John was sent by God. They tried to be evasive and give a non-answer. "We do not know," was all they could say. In turn, Jesus refused to tell them by what authority did he have to start a riot instead; he offered them a story.

Once again, Jesus reveals his skill in story telling by capturing their attention in his opening words, "A man had two sons," Every listening ear immediately thought of his own family. Each man could still remember the love and respect that was shared by father and son. They could still recall the exchanges between father and son. Jesus continues. "The father asked the first son to go and work in the vineyard today." The father addressed the young man with words of tender affection. He is not a demanding overbearing parent but a man who respects and cares for his son. The son answered, "I will not." It is a brief exchange between father and son but everyone listening to Jesus knew that the real conversations lasted longer than that. Jesus does not need to expand on the son's response. Every man standing there would have known what happened. The father asks again but the son declines. The father asks for a reason and the son responds defensively. The father does not accept his child's reason and pursues his request. His voice is now tense and the words become inflamed. The son becomes entrenched in defending his autonomy. Tempers flare and doors slam.

The story continues. The father turns to his second son and asks him to work in the vineyard. Wanting to avoid a reenactment of the first exchange, the second son agrees but then decides not to fulfill his promise. Later the first son changes his mind. This is not the conversion of a prodigal. Rather, it is the recognition of a mistake, of an overreaction. The son admits to himself that he was wrong for arguing and complies with his father's request.

The second son never had any intention of working and so never goes to the vineyard. By the end of the story, the men standing around Jesus feel both the anger of the father and the frustration of the son. They may have played both roles at one time. Each man standing before Jesus may have once been a son who got tired of always having to do what dad wanted. They may have once been a father whose simple request was met with rebellious antagonism. They vent their rage against the second son who faked compliance but walked away in disobedience. Imagine their surprise when Jesus revealed to them that they were second sons—people who had said yes but lived a no.

We would prefer to see ourselves as the protagonist of the story—the first child; the one who may have said no but eventually obeyed. I raise the question, are we? Are we really saying and living a yes?

The quarter pound of salt?

According to a Gallup survey, 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. About 34 percent claim to a "new birth" experience. However, Dallas Willard writes, "These figures are shocking when thoughtfully compared to statistics on the same group for unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealing and the like."[1] Another writer emphasized the disparity between what people profess to believe or experience and how they live. He cited a different survey that indicated that 25% of the population had experienced an evangelical conversion. He observed, "A pound of meat would surely be affected by a quarter pound of salt. If this is real Christianity, the 'salt of the earth' where is the effect of which Jesus spoke?"[2] Both authors contend that statistically there is no correlation between a person's religious experience and their ethical and moral lifestyle. What we know is not always lived out in who we are. We may not like to admit it but we are more like the second child than the first.

Let us consider for a moment the response of the second child. Jesus does not elaborate on his course of action—which may be his point. The child did not throw a tantrum. The child did not demand his inheritance and leave his family. The child did not commit an overt crime. He simple concerned himself with his own affairs. He had his own set of goals. They were his one and only priority. The child considered the father's request an intrusion into his life. He was not going to argue with the old man but he certainly was not going to comply with the request. There were more important things to do with his life.

We say yes but live a no. The saddest part of the problem is how we rationalize or make excuses for our behavior.

Bumper Sticker Theology

In the 60’s, Simon and Garfunkle had a hit song entitled The Sounds of Silence. They sang, "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Where there are no subways, bumper stickers serve as an even better substitute. Unlike the prophets of the Old Testament, religious bumper stickers impose a gentler message. One of the more common bumper stickers I have seen reads, "Christians aren't perfect just forgiven."

The attractiveness of this message has been exploited by marketers. Go into any Christian bookstore and you will see the words printed on bookmarks, wrist bracelets, and coffee mugs. It may be adorned with flowers, bows, green sprigs, and maybe even a cute wide-eyed teddy bear that has a shy look as if it had inadvertently just done something wrong.

Just forgiven! The basic message is certainly true but is that all that there is to being a Christian. We certainly are not perfect. No matter how hard we work and no matter how much we accomplish, we will always have room for improvement. But there is a tremendous distance between perfection and "simple forgiveness." The slogan presents a minimalist theology. By that, I mean we are only concerned by the minimum that God expects of us. We lower the standard by which a person can gain access to eternal life. Dallas Willard writes that we "have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect [our] life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all."[3]

Living a Yes

The challenge for us today is how do we turn the word yes into a life that says yes. The first step requires a decision. We are very much like both sons who went off to take care of their own business. We have not rebelled and renounced our family inheritance. Our lives are simply consumed by other things. We have a decision to make. Will we obey God or not.

The second step requires us to dwell in his word. The father in the parable had a simple request. Both boys knew exactly what he expected of them. In order for us to know what God expects of us, we must spend time reading and meditating on his word. Another important dimension of dwelling in his word is talking with others about what we are reading and how God is speaking to us. This is the reason I have been encouraging the congregation to read the book of Matthew and next year the book of Mark. As we read the book together and talk about it God will make it clear what he expects of us and of this congregation.

The final step is the simple act of obedience. After we decide to change and obey God’s instruction, we must live out that decision in our daily lives. It is not a one-time event. Simply because we profess faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord does not mean that we follow the path of discipleship the rest of our lives. It is a daily moment by moment decision. It requires constant reexamination and determination.

Decimals and Fractions

A life of obedience is not without its benefits. It is much like the math teacher who says to her students, "Verily, Verily I say unto you, unless you know your decimals and fractions you cannot do algebra." The teacher is not banishing her students from higher math because they are bad students. Rather, she knows that unless they have learned the basic principles of math they will not be able to understand and comprehend the more complex algebra.[4] In our walk of faith we must first learn to say and live a yes before we will be able to experience the fullness of God and the joy of our salvation.



[1] Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p. 38.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of Discipline, (HarperCollins:San Francisco, 1990), p. 23.

[3] Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p. 36.

[4] Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p. 293.

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