I’d like your opinion. I called a couple of mechanics to take a look at my car. The first man I talked to was very rude. He said he had no time for me and hung up while I was still holding the phone to my ear. You can imagine my surprise then when later that afternoon this same mechanic showed up at my door and spent an hour inspecting my car before giving me an estimate for what it would cost to repair. Before he arrived, however, I had called another mechanic and asked him to look at my car. This mechanic was very cheerful and promised to come out that afternoon. Well, that was three days ago and he still hasn’t come. What should I do? Which mechanic should I use to fix my car? Should I go with the one who was rude but still took the time to give me an estimate, or should I wait for the cheerful mechanic to show up?
In our sermon text today Jesus told a parable about two brothers who were very much like the two mechanics in my made-up story. Both boys were told by their father to work in the vineyard. One said, “No way!” while the other said, “Yes sir!” Both ended up doing the opposite of what they said they would do. Through this parable Jesus urges us to do our heavenly Father’s will – not with empty words (like the second son), but with repentant actions (like the first son).
Jesus spoke this parable to people who were certain they were bound for heaven. Unfortunately their confidence was not rooted in God’s promises but based on how good they thought they were. The Chief Priests and Elders to whom Jesus spoke, thought they were so holy that when John the Baptist called them to repent of their sins and be baptized, they ignored him. While they ignored John’s call to repent, tax collectors and prostitutes, people many considered to be beyond saving, confessed their sins and were baptized.
Can you guess which group of people represented the son who at first said “no” in the parable but then did what his father wanted? Sure, the tax collectors and prostitutes were that son. They had at first said “no” to God with their life-style choices but later said “yes” when they repented of their sins and were baptized. While their lives were characterized by repentant actions, the lives of the Chief Priests and Elders were characterized by empty words. They were the son who at first said “yes” to working in the vineyard but then never went. They had said “yes” to God by taking on positions of leadership in the religious community, promising to teach God’s Word and live by it but they didn’t follow through with these things. Their promises had been nothing more than empty words and therefore they were not doing the Father’s will.
Which son are we? Is our life one of empty words or repentant actions? Are we like the sixth-grader who was so nervous for her science test that she said “no” to God when she sketched a cheat-sheet on the palm of her hand but then in an act of repentance said “yes” when she wiped her hand clean before the test? Or are we like the confirmand who said “yes” to God when he promises to be faithful in hearing God’s Word, using the Sacrament, and serving in the church but then says “no” when hockey practice and a part-time job get in the way of regular church attendance? The truth is we are like both sons. We have all said “no” to God and then later repented and did what God wanted us to do. We’ve also sinned by saying “yes” to the Lord when we promise here to reflect God’s holiness but then seconds after worship is over we bicker and fight in the car on the way home showing God we really meant “no.”
Is one attitude worse than the other? It is. Empty words are worse because they delude us into thinking we are God-fearing people when we’re not. The Apostle James said that if we don’t live God’s Word, then all our pious words are meaningless and our faith is dead (James 2:17). That’s a scary thought isn’t it? It makes me wonder if I will make it to heaven because I’ve claimed to be a loving, patient, and kind child of God but when I’m rushing to get to work on a typical weekday morning I show myself to be anything but loving, patient, and kind – especially to my own family! I have said “yes” to God while demonstrating I really mean “no.” I am no better than the Chief Priests who said “yes” with their show of piety but then showed they meant “no” when they had Jesus crucified.
If you have been convicted by God’s law as I have, take heart. Jesus did not tell this parable to shame us. He told this parable to direct us…to him – the perfect Son. You see Jesus was the third son, not mentioned in the parable. When his heavenly Father said: “Son, I have a very hard chore for you. I want you to save sinful people. You’ll need you to go work on earth. You’ll need to take on flesh and blood spending nine months in a woman’s womb and then be born in a barn. You’ll need to live with these sinful people – healing and teaching them. In return you’ll be mocked, beaten with whips, and finally crucified. Will you do it?” God’s Son, of course, said: “Yes. I will do everything you ask of me.” There was no arguing, no complaining, only complete submission (Edward Grimenstein). And Jesus didn’t just say “yes” he lived his “yes” in perfect obedience never veering from the mission. And because Jesus has completed his mission of saving sinners, whenever we say “no” to God, he hears “yes” because he hears his Son’s voice over ours (like dubbed movie dialogue). And whenever we say “yes” only to show we really mean “no” by our inaction, the Father sees his Son’s perfect life in place of ours. In Jesus we have complete forgiveness.
Of course those who know and believe they have been forgiven will reflect their thankfulness for that forgiveness in the way they live. We will no longer say “no” when God tells us to work in his vineyard whether that’s by serving him in the church or reflecting his love at home and at school. Nor will we say “yes” and then make excuses as to why we didn’t follow through with the Lord’s work. As brothers and sisters of Jesus we will say “yes” and we will show “yes.” To strive for anything less would be to say that we don’t care what Jesus has done for us and that we don’t want to be part of God’s family. May that never be said of us. Instead may it be said that we do the Father’s will – not with empty words, but with repentant actions motivated by Jesus’ “yes” for us. Amen.