This Gospel today couldn’t have happened at a better time when candidates are bending and twisting their words in order to lure the larger vote totals in their favor in the up coming elections. Moistening the finger and checking which way the winds of political opinion polls are blowing is not the invention of twenty-first century or even American society. This parable, spoken in the Jerusalem temple in the very Holy Week when Jesus would be crucified, spoken to those who would turn the tide of popular opinion in a few short days from “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him” appears on the surface to speak of only two responses to God’s offer of salvation, either one of saving faith of of damning rejection of Jesus. But, as we shall see, there are two other unspoken responses possible.
It’s Holy Monday morning, the day after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem when he brought judgment and cleansing to the temple driving out the moneychangers. Today, the chief priests and elders ask him by what authority he is preaching and healing and judging. Knowing their hearts, Jesus plays a little game with them—not because he wants to dodge the question, but because his opponents are dodging the inevitable answer of Who Jesus is. He offers to answer them if they will answer a question of his. So he asks them about John the Baptist and whether his authority was from heaven or from man. Caught between the popular opinion of the people that John was a prophet sent by God and admitting their own rejection of John, they played the politician refusing to answer, saying, “We do not know.” Fair enough. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things,” said Jesus.
Now it seems a little strange to me to end the Gospel reading there leaving verses 28-32 optional. For with this little parable Jesus actually did answer his opponents’ question. He asks them, “What do you think?” The parable is about a father who told both of his children to go and work in his vineyard. The first one says, “No way,” but then, feeling bad about saying “no” to his father, ended up going anyway. The second one says, “Okay, I’ll go!” but then never does. The simple question, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” Well, obviously it was the first one that, though he initially said “no,” ended up actually doing what his father said. Then Jesus explains the parable.
Who are those who have said “no” to God all their lives, maybe for a long time, and whose lives show that they have said “no” to God? Remember, this is the one in the parable whom his interrogators have just identified as the one who did the will of the father. It was the tax collectors and prostitutes! Then, who are those who have said “yes” to God but who ended up not doing the will of the father? The chief priests and elders took no little pride in their religious piety, their saying “yes” to God. But here they were saying “no,” “no” to John the Baptist, “no” to Jesus, “no” to all the prophets of God who had foretold the coming of the Savior. “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going ahead of you into the reign of God because they believed John, repented and believed in the One John pointed them to as the Savior.”
What is doing the will of God the Father? It is not in doing any particular works of piety or righteous acts. Works serve only as the evidence of the true work. What is that true work? In St. John’s Gospel Jesus was asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29).
Now I said earlier that this parable appears to describe only two responses, faith and unbelief; the person who initially says “no” to God but later repents and is saved, and the person who initially says “yes” to God but later turns away and rejects God and “him whom he has sent.” In a way, all we who believe are like the first son. All of us have said “no” to God in some way or another, the old, sinful nature resisting his Word and preferring our own agendas. Yet we have also been given the gift of repentance of our sin, turning to God because of his gracious invitation to salvation through simple faith in his Son. And because the forgiveness and love of God is so great, so complete, there is no end, no limit to how many times we may and must repent, return and believe. In fact, this is the patterns of the entire baptized life, as the little catechism says, “that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
But then, could there be some among us, on the other hand, who are like the second son? who have initially said “yes” to God but who have turned or are presently turning away, in danger of losing God’s gift of salvation? Well, of course. When Jesus told this parable to the chief priests and elders he wasn’t just being coy or snotty. It was spoken in hopes that they, too, may wake up, repent and believe. And we, too, need the Law of God to bring us to our spiritual senses, to bring us to repentance, to return and believe. The New Testament tells us that a few from their number did repent and believe, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
But there are two more categories, two other possibilities in this parable that are unspoken. We have the first, saying “no,” but then turning, repenting and going, the “no-yes” answer. Then we have the second, saying “yes,” but then turning and not going, “the yes-no” response. But what about those who say “no” and never do turn or repent, the “no-no” answer? And then, are there any who say “yes,” and do follow through and go, the “yes-yes” answer? Well, of course.
We live in a society and a time when more and more folks are being born and growing to adulthood having never been baptized or even hearing God’s call to repentance and faith to salvation. Now, though it takes the hearing of God’s Word first in order to say “no” to it, those who have never heard are in the same boat, for it is of the common fallen, sinful nature to have no impulse for God.
Well then, finally, are there any who have said “yes” and have faithfully followed through? We might think of the person who was born to Christian parents, was baptized as an infant, brought to Sunday school and the Divine Service, to confirmation instruction and who have remained faithful to the hearing of the Word all their lives. Yet, as we said, because of “sin which clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1), at best even the most faithful among us can identify only with the first son in the parable. This last category of “yes, yes” belongs to only one person, after all—solely and alone to the Son of God, Jesus, our Savior. And so this parable, finally, is not so much about us as it is about Jesus. He is the faithful and obedient Son of the Father Who came to do the Father’s will, to save sinners. He is the One to Whom John the Baptist pointed, whose way he prepared. He is the One in whom to place all your faith and trust, for only in Him is there forgiveness of all your sins and the gift of abundant, eternal life and salvation.
There is no other place I would rather be than where God has promised to be for us, in His Word and Sacraments where that life-giving interaction of receiving the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation happens. For all the times we have said “no” to God by our words, thoughts or deeds, the Lord’s “Yes,” Jesus has sought us out, brought us back to live our baptism, and given us the faith, made us His new creation to say “yes,” to work in his vineyard and to be welcomed into the eternal courts of his praise.