The story I want us to focus on this morning comes from today’s gospel reading. It is the story of the two sons. This isn’t the most famous story of two sons, of course; that is the Prodigal Son. In this story, we could say that we see the two sons when they were younger, and, if you ask me, rather typical teenagers!
So, let’s look at this story a little. There are three characters, the father, the elder son and the younger son. Father seems to be a farmer or landowner. I think he is one of Jesus’ favourite characters, one that he tells a lot of stories about. The gospel writers had to be a bit selective, but I shouldn’t wonder if that particular man was a well-loved character in Jesus’ stories.
He stars in the story of the workers in the vineyard, you remember, it was last week’s Gospel reading – where he pays all his workers the same, no matter how long or short a day they had worked.
He stars in the story of the Prodigal son. And now he stars in this story.
He has two sons, and on this particular day, he needs some help in the vineyard. So he grabs the first boy he sees, and says “Can you give me a hand in the vineyard this afternoon?”
Now, Matthew tells us that the boy said “I will not.” But I bet that what he really said was something like, “Oh Dad. Do I have to? I’ve got masses of homework. I said I’d go round to Sammy’s house and see his new scrolls!”
And Dad probably said something like, “Oh well, don’t help, then. Be like that.” And Dad goes and finds son number two. “Will you give me a hand in the vineyards this afternoon?”
“Sure!” says Son no 2. “No problem, Dad; I’ll be there.”
And then what happens?
Come the afternoon, Son no 2’s best friend calls round. “You coming swimming?”
And Son no 2 conveniently forgets he’d promised to help Dad, and goes off swimming without a care in the world. Or perhaps he doesn’t forget, but it’s so hot. Dad won’t really mind. After all, he’s helped lots of times before. Blow it, he’s going swimming!
Son no 1, meanwhile, has finished his homework. He’s about to go round to Sammy’s, but then there’s a little niggle. Dad did want some help this afternoon. Yes, but why should I help, he argues with himself. It’s my brother’s turn. I helped last week. I’m allowed some time for myself, aren’t I?
But he’s just seen his brother go off swimming. He wont be helping this afternoon, for all he said he will.
Oh, all right, he says to his conscience. I suppose I can go round to Sammy’s this evening. He won’t mind. And anyway, I bet his Dad’s clobbered him for some help, too. So Son no 2 takes himself to the vineyard, rather unwillingly. But he does work hard when he gets there, and his father is seriously pleased with him. And, as Jesus pointed out, he was the son who was obedient after all.
So, then, Matthew tells us, Jesus goes on to explain why he told this story. The trouble, of course, was with the Pharisees. As you will remember from our reading, Jesus had just had yet another run-in with them, this time on the subject of his authority to preach.
Jesus was always having run-ins with the Pharisees. They were good, religious people, of course, but the trouble was that they did not see God in the same way that Jesus did. They believed that you had to keep the Jewish law absolutely perfectly if you wanted God to accept you.
And they didn’t dare take any risks, so where the Commandment said, basically, don’t work on Sundays, they gave all sorts of “for instances” and “What ifs” and “in this case you”... in addition. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.
Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were, quite without realising it, imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law, than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and way.
So you can see that it was absolutely devastating for them when Jesus came along and said “You’ve got it all wrong!”
What? They weren’t being perfect, after all? No, no this couldn’t be right. They had to be perfect, or God would reject them. Of course they were perfect. Who was this silly teacher, any way? What right had he to be telling them they were all wrong? And so on.
They simply couldn’t handle Jesus’ teaching. For Jesus said, obey the law by all means, but do realise that it was originally written for a nomadic community which needed detailed regulations in order to keep healthy and increase in numbers.
The Law, he taught, was your servant, not your master. God was far more concerned with truth, justice and right relationships than he was with whether you needed to give five or ten leaves of mint, or whether you washed your hands like this or like that.
So the Pharisees rejected Jesus and all he stood for. At least, most of them did. There were a few honourable exceptions, of course, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and, of course, much later, St Paul. But, by and large, the Pharisees, and the rest of the religious establishment of the day, rejected Jesus.
But one group of people did turn to Jesus and accepted his teaching. These were the outcasts, people who had been considered quite beyond the pale so far as the regular religious establishment was concerned.
The tax gatherers, who worked for the Roman occupying power and often had to charge excessive commission in order to have enough money to stay alive. Prostitutes. Other people who, for one reason or another, felt it was hopeless to try to keep the Jewish Law, and had stopped trying.
Until Jesus came, the politically correct response to these people was to ignore their existence completely. Religious people would not have been seen dead with them; what would people think? But Jesus knew that they were longing for God, needing God, and wanting only the least bit of encouragement to turn to Him. And, sure enough, when he provided that encouragement, they turned to God in their multitudes. We know the names of some of them: Zacchaeus, Levi, Mary of Magdalen. But there were many others whose names we don’t know.
So, in the story, Jesus equates the Pharisees with the second son, the one who said “Yes” to his Father, but then did not obey when the crunch came. The outcasts were represented by the first son, the one who had said “No way”, but who did go and help his father, after all.
So that does this story say to us today? We are a long way in time and in culture from 1st-Century Jerusalem. But human nature doesn’t change. It’s all too easy to get stuck like the Pharisees, to think that God only loves us when we are perfect, that we have to be perfect in order for God to love us. Or, perhaps worse, that God only loves Christian believers – by which we usually mean people who express their faith in exactly the same way that we do!
Now, said in cold blood like that, it sound silly. After all, that was the whole reason Jesus came, to provide a bridge between us and God. We know that. At least, we know it in our heads, but we don’t necessarily know it in our hearts.
I didn’t. For many years, long ago now, but you don’t forget, for many years I thought that God hated humans because we were sinners, and only tolerated because of Jesus. And once we had been saved, I thought, we had to be perfect because if we weren’t, it would be horribly ungrateful of us. God, somehow, had a big stick and was ready to pounce, was looking for reasons, for excuses, to condemn us.
I’m sure none of you this morning is as silly as I used to be. At least, I hope not. But it is a very easy trap to fall into. We deny God’s love, or limit it. Even when we see God doing wonderful things, we assume he will only do them for us so that we can spend more of our time and energy working for him.
My friends, the truth is that God loves us. He made us. He is interested in us. He wants us to be whole, because he loves us.
Now, of course, sometimes we do terrible things – and sadly, some people do terrible things in God’s name – and God hates those things. But he still loves us. Sometimes we deny God completely, saying we are agnostic or atheist. But God still loves us, and longs and longs for us to turn to him. And he still loves us. Every single person, whether Christian, Moslem – even Moslem suicide bombers – Hindu, Buddhist, or any religion you could think of, and those with no religion at all. Those who commit terrible crimes, those who live honest, upright and sober lives. God loves us.
The Father in Jesus’ story loved both his sons. He didn’t stop loving the son who didn’t go to the vineyard, nor did he stop loving the son who said he wouldn’t go.
God loved the Pharisees, even though he agonised over their obsession with perfection. He loved the tax gatherers and other outcasts. And he loves me, and he loves you.
So let’s respond to that love by recommitting ourselves to him again this morning. It doesn’t matter if we have never said “Yes” to him, or if we have been Christians for more years than we care to remember. To help us, we are going to sing that lovely hymn, one of my favourites, number 685. “Oh love, that wilt not let me go.” Hymn 685.
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