One of my favorite parts of the old “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson:” was the segment he called “Stump the Band. Johnny would go into the studio audience and have volunteers try to come up with a song that the Tonight Show band could not play. It was hilarious when they didn’t know the particular song and tried to fake it by having a band member play or sing it. They made up the tune and words, all for fun and entertainment.
Today’s Gospel starts out like a segment that should be called, “Stump Jesus.” But of course, Jesus got the best of the religious leaders when He put them in a no-win situation with the question He retorted to them. He then told them a parable that hits the spot even today. Here are a couple examples that you might connect with:
Parent to children: “Could you please clean up your rooms today? They’re disaster areas.” First child to parent: “OK, I’ll do it a little later.” Second child: “I have too much homework, and I want to go over to my friend’s house.” Then just before bedtime, “Did you clean up your rooms?” the parent asks. The first child responds, “Oops. I guess I ran out of time. I’ll do it tomorrow.” The second child replies, “Yes, I did it when I got sick of my homework.”
A few people were talking around a table at a local restaurant one day, when the pastor happened by. (Pre-covid!) They started visiting about church and the worship services. The pastor invited them to church the next Sunday. “Sure,” one of them said, “Yep, I plan to be there. What time did you say the services were?” Another person replied, “I’m just not that into church, I guess.” The one who had said yes, really had no intention of getting back into the routine of attending worship. She just said ‘yes’ to pacify the pastor. But low and behold, the one who wasn’t ‘that into church,’ started thinking about it and appreciated the invitation. She ended up coming that next Sunday, hoping to see her friend there.
We have all had experiences similar to these where promises far exceed the realities, where people said “Yes” too easily and then didn’t intend to follow through. And, isn’t it really disappointing to have people say ‘yes’ to something and then not have them follow through, or not have them show up for something they had promised?
Jesus told this short little parable today, right on the heels of the Jewish leaders challenging His authority. Jesus says that there are some who say ‘yes’ to God, who follow the rituals or laws on the outside, but inside do not have hearts that follow God. There are others who are living contrary to all the norms of society, basically saying ‘no’ to God, who hear the Word of God and change their lives to follow God.
Jesus has harsh words for those who, on the outside, appear to be religious and upstanding people, but on the inside are not what they appear to be. He says that the lowly and despised of the world will enter the kingdom before those who are full of themselves or putting on a show for the benefit of others. He talks about two sons in the parable who were quite different. One did not do what the father asked. The other, after initially saying ‘no,’ repented and followed the father’s wishes. Neither of the two sons were without fault.
Jesus gets the listener involved in the story by asking, “What do you think?” The listeners are asked for their opinions at the end of the story. The answer to the parable is obvious, but the interpretation--not so much.
Jesus gets us involved, then leaves us to finish the parable for ourselves. We find ourselves in the story one way or another. We can be the people who look godly on the outside—after all, we’re here today, aren’t we?! We can also be the rebels who say ‘no’ first, then change our minds. None of us is a perfect servant of God, none of us does all the right things. We are a sinful people.
But none of us are without our good points as well. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can see the error in our ways, and we can turn to Christ in repentance. We can find forgiveness of our sins and we can follow through on our plans to do good things.
Maybe the point of this parable is that it is not what we say, or even not what we do, that ultimately has any meaning in our lives. What matters is that Jesus has come into our lives--into this messy world filled with problems, illness, strife, grief, and indecision—and Jesus has offered us a new relationship with God our Father.
Jesus sends us into this messy world to be his disciples. He sends us into a world messed up with devastating storms and wildfires; with people left homeless, jobless, even without family or friends for strength and support. He sends us into a world struggling with a pandemic; and into a world with racial unrest and with anarchy threatening our freedoms. Jesus sends us out, but He sends His Spirit with us, to fill us and equip us to serve Him being His hands and feet in this world.
Jesus knows our shortcomings and our strengths. Jesus knows what is really in our hearts, and He knows if we truly are responding out of love for Him. He knows when our repentance is heartfelt, and He knows that we cannot will ourselves to be sin-free. We are sinners, but when we repent we are forgiven and washed clean in the water of our baptisms.
Jesus calls us to take an honest, humble, look at ourselves. He calls us to change when we realize our sins. He reminds us to love others from the heart, to give of ourselves—whatever that may entail, and rely totally on His forgiveness and love in all things.