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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost


“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’


“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.


“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.


“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”


“The first,” they answered.


Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you; the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32


I remember in school we had three different kinds of exams: true and false, multiple choice, and essay. Essay questions were the hardest; multiple choice were the easiest.


But the multiple-choice quiz Jesus gave the Chief Priests and Elders in today’s Gospel lesson was hard. Only two choices. Seems like there should have been a third choice.


Think about it. A man had two sons. The father tells each one to go and do a little work in the vineyard. It’s not too much to ask, like mowing the lawn once in a while. Parents don’t ask their children to do that many chores around the house. Besides, it’s the least they can do for all the room and board and clothes they get. Right?


So, Jesus says that this particular father asks his two boys to help out a little around the vineyard. But get this: one of them says, “No,” and then does it; the other one says, “Yes Dad, I’ll be glad to,” and then doesn’t.


Kids – what are you going to do with them? Once you think you have them figured out, they either surprise you or they let you down. And part of the problem is that they’re so hard to talk to. They seem to speak a different language, which may be something of a cross between “rap” and a low mumble, or they don’t talk at all.


A father tried to talk to his son about how college was going:

The father said, “How are things going?”

The son said, “Good.”

The father said, “And the dormitory?”

“Good.”

“How are your studies going?”

“Good.”

“Have you decided on a major yet?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what is it?”

And the son said, “Communication.”


Can any of you relate to that?


So it goes as parents and children try to talk to each other. And so it was for the man and his two sons in Jesus’ story. Personally, I don’t think much of either son. Neither one did what he said he was going to do, nor agreed to help and then do it. That’s why I said it seems like there should have been a third choice. But then this isn’t an Ann Landers or Erma Bombeck passage about the trials and tribulations of rearing children. It’s really about the Pharisees and Pharisee types who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.


Here goes Jesus again, picking on the Pharisees. Which didn’t really seem fair since they were the good people in their day. They were the ones who were upright, righteous, and right with God. They knew the Law and actually kept it. Not that they were sinless. Even they knew that everyone is tainted with the damage done in the Garden of Eden. But they kept the Laws of God as closely as was humanly possible. Not only that, they actually came to church every week. They read their Bibles and even went to Bible studies. And, of course, they tithed and actually kept their pledges paid up, which made them real popular around the synagogue, especially with the Rabbis – and the treasurers!


So, what was the problem? Why do you suppose Jesus picked on the Pharisees? Maybe it was because they deserved it! In reality, they were a pretty self-righteous bunch, holding everyone to every little jot and tittle of the Law. Not only that, when you scratched the surface of their piety, you found that there wasn’t much real commitment underneath. They were much more concerned with their own salvation, and deciding who was saved and who wasn’t, than they were with helping those who were really lost come to know God.


Which, by the way, is a good question to ask ourselves! When was the last time you were concerned with helping someone who is lost, come to know God?


The Pharisees weren’t much interested in that. They were much more interested in themselves and their own ritual purity. They were big on promises about doing something for those in need, but not much on follow-through. Sort of big on saying, but not much on doing. Talking the talk but not walking the walk!


This is a problem that catches most of us. We’re great when we’re hanging around the church on Sundays: singing hymns, praying prayers, preaching, or listening to sermons, teaching or listening to Sunday School lessons, ushering, playing the organ or another instrument, reading scripture lessons – all the different jobs we do around the church. We’re pretty good at all these things.


Where we have trouble is making something of our Christian lives where we work and play. Where we have trouble is in our relationships with our spouses and our parents and our children and friends and fellow workers. Even our fellow Christians, right in our own congregations!


Don’t you find a little bit of contradiction in that? God does! Jesus does! And He sees right through us, and with this parable He says, “Church people, beware!” James picked up the same theme later, saying things like “Faith without works is dead.” But James never went as far or put it as pointedly as Jesus did.


Imagine Jesus walking into our church some Sunday morning, interrupting the service, and saying, “The politicians who have been overtaxing you, and the ladies from the red-light district, who have cleaned up their acts and sincerely changed their ways, have a better shot at Heaven than you do!” How do you suppose we’d like that? Well, Jesus never was very big on Dale Carnegie anyway.


The son who said, “I will, sir,” but didn’t go, was aimed at the Pharisees. The other son who said, “I won’t,” but later repented and went, represented penitent sinners like the tax collectors and prostitutes. That’s the direct interpretation of the parable, but the application is for everyone. Because whenever and wherever the Gospel is shared, there are still sinners who repent and receive Jesus as their Savior. And alongside of them are those who may be religious but aren’t yet willing to confess that they are also sinners and are as much in need of a Savior as the worst sinners alive!


So, the key question hasn’t changed: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” That question cuts right through all of life. The 21st century is proud of what it knows and gives its highest honors for learning. The first question the College Admission Board asks is “What were your grades in high school?” Jesus asks every student a little different question, “Who did the will of the father?” It’s important to know the Bible and the truths of Christianity, and seminaries ask endless examination questions to see what the seminary students have learned. But Jesus would ask the graduating class, “Which one did the will of the father?” We sanctify success and show it with salary increases and promotions. But the right question to ask is, “Which one did the will of the father?” We select Miss America and Nobel Prize winters, but Jesus would say, “That’s nice, but which of these did as the father wished?”


The first word the Bible says to us is, “God.” The last word Jesus says to us is, “Go!” And according to this Gospel lesson, the question Jesus asks us now is, “Which of you are doing the will of the Father?”


May the Father help us to answer that question well, because we talk the talk and we walk the walk!


Amen

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