Have you ever made a promise and not kept it? I know that I have. And all of us, if we are honest, have to admit that we have, all of us, from time to time done this. It is not the most comfortable of things to come face-to-face with one’s own shortcomings, but if we are to live the Christian life, really, wholly, and fully, then it is something that we need to do.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is talking to the chief priests and elders, the religious leaders of his day, the people supposed to lead the people of Israel in their relationship with God. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph, cast out the money-changers from the temple, and cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. What we are witnessing in the gospel is a religious reform. Those who are supposed to have brought people closer to God are to be understood as defiant and rebellious; they are the problem rather than the solution.
Jesus begins by asking a question, what do you think? These simple words speak profoundly of the freedom given to humanity by God. We are not forced, but rather invited to engage in a conversation, God does not compel us. Of the two sons, clearly the one who overcomes his initial reluctance and ends up doing the will of his father, working in the vineyard, is the example for us to follow. He experiences repentance, turns away from this form of behaviour and does what is best for him. The son is not a hypocrite; he is just stubborn, rebellious, and disobedient – but he repents.
The other son begins with an outward show of respect: he looks like a dutiful son, addressing his father as Sir. But he is basically a hypocrite, as true obedience comes not in the outward displays of respect, but in doing the will of God. The chief priests and elders have rejected Jesus and soon will be calling out for his death, they will take the Messiah, the one who could save them from their sins, and kill him. What greater turning away from God could there be?
Tax-collectors and prostitutes were the lowest of the low, the one cheated, the other was sexually immoral, both were on good terms with the Romans, they were not the kind of company a religiously observant Jew would keep. And yet, despite their sins, they are willing to repent, they know they need for God, and God loves them, heals their wounds, and welcomes them into his kingdom. The religious authorities stand convicted by their own lips: in recognising that it is more important to do the will of God rather than simply to say that one will, they highlight their own hypocrisy: they have been told by John the Baptist whom they ignored, and now when Jesus tells them again they will ignore him too.
Are we then, here today, going to follow the example of the hypocritical Jewish religious authorities and make an outward show of our closeness to God, while refusing to repent of our sins, or are we going to be like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who know their need of God, who know their own shortcomings, who believe and trust in God, who want to be healed by him, and turn away from all that separates us from God.
God to show his love for us gave himself for us, upon the cross, where Jesus Christ is both priest and victim, this same sacrifice will become as present here this morning as it did on a Hill outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. God will give himself to us in his body and his blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to heal us, to draws closer to himself, to show us how much he loves us. So then let us taste and see how gracious the Lord is, but most of all, and may we all do the will of our Father in Heaven. Let us turn away from what we have been and conform ourselves to the will of God, fed by him, strengthened by him, loved by him, forgiven by him, and built up as a living temple to His glory.
And now to God the Father God the Son of God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all Might, Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power now and for ever…