Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-4 (5-13) 14-18
For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him.
The political season is well underway in the United States. Political ads are playing on the radio, television, and through social media. The news shows have focused on the candidates and the issues. Political signs are popping up all over our neighborhood like wildflowers in the spring.
Politicians in every level of government are working hard to make sure that we have heard their words and will remember their name when we vote on Election Day. They repeat key words and phrases to convince us that they are the right person for the job. They have to keep it short so that it will fit on a bumper sticker, but bumper sticker wisdom is often twisted and less than true. The more we hear those key words and phrases, however, they become so embedded in our minds that they seem to become common wisdom. They are repeated in everyday conversations until they are accepted truths.
These short, memorable statements begin as little more than a slogan or motto, but often take on the life of something greater. They become adages, maxims, aphorisms, epigrams, proverbs and when overused they become clichés. These words have nearly identical definitions and can be generally used interchangeably, and yet there is some difference between them. Maxims are adages that become general rules. Aphorisms are adages that have not been around a long time but are recognized as particularly deep or well-written. Epigrams are known for their wittiness and irony. Proverbs summarize basic truths of folk wisdom, made acceptable by long use and universal experiences of common folk.
The problem with political slogans and with proverbs is that there is often an equal and opposite slogan or proverb. That’s what makes voting so difficult. Which do you believe? Two politicians from opposite sides claim they will best represent the military community, or the inner cities, or the farmers, or a certain race, or... the list goes on. They all say the right words. They all make sense in some way. They all seem true. They all point to a measure of wisdom that we need to go into the future. That’s why it is so important to base our decisions on more than sound bites and bumper sticker wisdom. It is important to know more about the candidates, to listen to both sides of the debates, to research the backgrounds and words of all candidates to find the whole truth amongst the adages.
There are, among the common proverbs of our time, a number of “dueling maxims” which are contrary proverbs. Take, for instance, “The bigger the better” and “Good things come in small packages.” Which is better, the big one or the small one? “Actions speak louder than words” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Is it better to write letters to the editor about a problem or face your enemy? I love this pair: “You’re never too old to learn” but “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, how is he supposed to learn? We often live our lives according to this proverb: “It’s better to be safe than sorry” but we also know “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” So, should we live safe or go forward with courage? And finally, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “Out of sight, out of mind.” So, will we remember those we love if they stay away or if they are under our noses?
Proverbs change according to the changing world in which we live, although I think we all have moments when each side of a dueling maxim is appropriate. I’ve received big presents that were great as well as small boxes with diamonds. The pen is mighty, but there are times when action is necessary to make a real difference. Long held habits are hard to break, but you do learn something new every day. We have to be courageous and careful. A relationship can be built from afar, but temptation can lead to unfaithfulness.
The proverb in today’s passage may have seemed true to the people of Israel in the day of Ezekiel. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” In so much of God’s relationship with His people, the blessings and the consequences seemed absolutely determined by the actions and words of their forefathers. They were a people dependent on national identity and relationship to the past. Yet, we also see in the lives of those forefathers that God wanted a personal relationship with those He called to serve. God cares about each person and we will experience His mercy and justice as individuals because He loves each of us as individuals. There may be some truth to the proverbs of our day and in the proverb in today’s passage, but when it comes to the things of God, human wisdom will never stand.
The worst part of our political process is that many people rely solely on those words to make their decision rather than looking further to understand the person’s attitude and action. We all know that many politicians (most?) say one thing and do something much different. They promise one thing, but they don’t accomplish what they’ve promised. Sometimes there is good reason why it didn’t come to be, but sometimes they simply promise what they think the voters want to hear and then when they get into office, they do whatever they want to do. Sadly, they begin saying the same words when campaign season starts, and the voters rarely hold them accountable. They like what they hear, so they vote for the same failed promises over and over again.
I spent several years as a retail manager. In retail, as in other areas of life, there are different types of people. One type was a joy to be around. They worked hard, always happy to be at work. They completed their tasks with enthusiasm and enjoyment. They didn’t waste time during the day; when they finished their tasks, they looked to see what else could be done. At the end of the day, those employees always go above and beyond the “call of duty.” This is the kind of person you want to employ and to reward because they are valuable assets to the company. The parable in today’s Gospel lesson doesn’t give us an example of this type of person. We do hear about the other two, though.
Jesus described two sons whose father sent them to the vineyard to work. One son answered, “I will surely go,” but he never got around to it. I had employees who were the same. They accepted assignments with enthusiasm, but they never finished the job. They were easily distracted by other things and though they might have started a task, they got caught up in other things, often using those other tasks as excuses for their inability to get the work done. For example, I had one employee whose job was to take care of the stationary department of the store. Now, this department (pens, notebooks, office supplies) was definitely hard to deal with because there were so many small items on the shelves. This employee was also often called to serve as a cashier during busy times. She was distracted by other work and might have had a good excuse, except that even when she was not on the cash register, she managed to waste time. She found a way to make her brief stints at the register become lengthy time away from her regular duties. She lingered around the check-out station, stopped to chat with other employees and excused herself to the break room. She had been called away and used that as her excuse for not completing her work even though she could have returned to it immediately and accomplished it in plenty of time.
Most of my employees were the third type: the grumblers and complainers. They were the ones who were vocal about the tasks they hated to do. They often found easy work on the floor quickly so that they would not be assigned to those hated tasks. They never said “Yes” with or without enthusiasm. They said “No, I am working on this.” Yet, I often found them doing the work later, having realized how important it was to get it done. It was those employees that had to do the work of the enthusiastic employee who never got done. I would rather have these employees because at least I knew they would eventually accomplish everything.
And according to the parable, this last group of employees was like the son who was obedient. He grumbled, but he did it. He immediately said “No” but ended up completing the tasks anyway. They didn’t make any promises but eventually changed their minds and changed their actions.
Jesus used this parable to describe the religious people of the day. The first son represents those who said “Yes” to God like the chief priests and teachers of the law who were religious but who refused to do the work of the Father, which is to believe in Jesus. The second son represents those who initially said “No way, I like my life as it is!” but later realized their mistake and believed. They were the ones called sinners by the religious elite, but they would receive the Kingdom because they did the work of believing in Jesus.
John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and for John that meant more than words. The Pharisees and the Sadducees wanted John to baptize them but he warned that they must produce fruit in keeping with repentance. He told them that it was not enough to have Abraham as their father because God is able to adopt children from even “the stones.” In this week’s Gospel lesson it seems that God found children in the most unusual place: among the sinners. These were not just your everyday sinners, either; He found believers among the publicans and prostitutes, the worst of the worst.
I wonder what life was like for those sinners who repented. They believed John and they also believed in Jesus. But this newfound faith would have wreaked havoc on their lives. Jesus described and exhibited the life of faithful living that was just and right according to God’s Word. His Father was the center of His life and His ministry. The kingdom as God intended it to be was the focus of His preaching. He was calling people to a life of repentance, but that repentance was more than an “I’m sorry.” Jesus was calling the people to a change of heart, a change of mindset, a life with God and His Word as the center.
God calls us to a life of righteousness, and the work of the publicans, or tax collectors, was not right. They cheated people out of money to get rich. They were willing to take the last dime of a widow in order to have a new robe and they feasted on the labor of the poor. A person could work as a tax collector and do it justly, but they would not be able to continue living a life of luxury. A tax collector got the job by competing for it against other tax collectors. They made bids, like a construction company might bid for a job with the government. If they won the bid, they were required to pay the taxes up front. They then went to their station and recouped their investment. It could have been a just system, but the tax collectors got greedy. They required higher taxes from the people to pay for their profits. While a farmer might owe ten measures of flour, the tax collector often charged twenty. What would a tax collector do with this new faith? With a change of heart, they could not longer cheat the people, but how would they live?
Faith means putting God first. Unfortunately, in Roman times there were dozens of gods to be worshipped. The prostitutes were part of the religious system of the day. They often lived in the temples and served the believers as part of the ritual of worship. Our God is a jealous God and demands from those who believe to hold no god above Him. This sounds like a very human emotion, but in the case of God, it is very divine. We cannot hold the Creator of everything equal to the gods found in the Roman or Greek temples of the day. He is God. When John the Baptist preached to these prostitutes, they saw a different kind of life for themselves, under the care and protection of a God who can truly make a difference. They could not go back to their temples, to hold up those gods and religions that had stolen their virtue for false promises. And though we can certainly make sex the issue, this is more about a change of heart. The prostitutes, like the tax collectors, believed in God and put Him first. That meant a change in lifestyle. How would they live?
They willingly turned their lives upside down because they believed John and then Jesus. Maybe that was why it was so hard for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They already believed in God and were doing the work they believed God was calling them to do. They didn’t think that this new belief held something better, or that they needed to be transformed, so they could not believe John’s message or believe in Jesus Christ. They claimed to believe in God but refused to do like those tax collectors and prostitutes; by rejecting Jesus they lost touch with the very God in whom they thought they believed.
Look at the headlines and you’ll see that we are suffering from so much brokenness in the world and everyone is trying to point the fingers at everyone else. The reality is that we are all sinners and we are all at fault in some way, but we want to lay the blame on others. Take, for instance, the work of Martin Luther. There are many who point to his writing against the Jewish people and blame him for Adolph Hitler. Luther was not gracious toward the Jews for many reasons, not the least of which was his frustration that they refused to see Jesus as the Messiah. He never called for their murder and despite his harsh words I believe he would have stood with Dietrich Bonheoffer in opposition to the extermination of an entire nation. Hitler claimed to be Luther’s kind of Christian, but he wasn’t a Christian at all. He misappropriated Luther’s words and used them to do the unthinkable. Luther was not perfect, and he should not have such harsh language about the Jews of his day, but Hitler was to blame for the things he did, especially misrepresenting what it means to be a Christian.
Is there anything about our own lives that can be misconstrued or mischaracterized, to be used in a negative way? When the world looks at your life, will they see that you are living a life according to God’s Word? Or have you said “Yes” without committing yourself to a true Christian life?
The proverb represented in today’s Old Testament lesson may point back to a verse from Exodus. “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is what is known in some circles as the generational curse. It is claimed that the children will experience the punishment for all that has been done wrong by their fathers. We do suffer from the original sin, born into the world as sinners because of the actions of our father Adam and mother Eve.
Unfortunately, we often see this most clearly in impoverished communities. The children suffer from the sins of their parents. But this generational curse is not limited to the poor. Children in every level of society learn to live according what they see in their families.
They claim that they don’t have a choice. Some blame society for making it impossible for them to get out of the cycle. Others point to the scripture from Exodus and claim that they are suffering because their fathers sinned. They, as the people in Ezekiel’s day, believe the proverb. Ezekiel tells the people that God has commanded them to reject that proverb. “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins, he shall die.” God wants the faith of His people to create a personal relationship that changes them from the inside. When we believe in Jesus, we will become the people we are meant to be.
Has your life been transformed? Is God the center of your life? Have you cheated someone today? What gods do you hold in greater esteem than the Lord? Have you repented? Has your heart and mind been changed, or do you continue to do things as you have always done them because you have built your hope on all the wrong things?
We live in a fallen and sinful world. Human beings are imperfect and fail to do the things God expects us to do. We are unrighteous and unjust. Each and every one of us. We all deserve God’s wrath; we all deserve to experience His justice. Instead of pointing our fingers to our fathers or to the forefathers of our neighbors, it is up to us to face the reality of our own sinfulness. We aren’t going to solve today’s problems by blaming our neighbors for yesterday’s sins.
God put a halt to the blame game. God deals with each person according to their own sin; they pay the price for their unwillingness to obey God’s Word. We all sin in specific ways and we often suffer the consequences of those sins, but Jesus had a much greater concern: the sin which separates us from God. Our natural inclination is to be our own god, to take control of our own life, and act according to our own ideology. This is the sin that sets us against God and His will. While some of our burdens can be blamed on the sins of our fathers and forefathers, we should be more concerned about our relationship with God.
The Gospel lesson calls us to a life where our “Yes” means “Yes” in word as well as deed. We are to believe in Jesus, but also to live as if we believe in Him.
Paul tells us that our attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ: humble submission to God’s Will. Jesus did not die because we can’t control ourselves; He died because we were separated from our Father. He died for forgiveness, not for each individual sin but because we are all incapable of willfully obeying His Word. He died to reconcile God to His people. Whatever happened in history is no concern; the father’s sin will not kill the child. Christ made it possible for all men to live in relationship with God the Father and to receive his blessings.
We respond to Jesus’ humility with the realization that if Jesus, who was the Son of God, could be humble, we should also be humble. The temple leaders didn’t know what it meant to be humble. They ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, “Turn to God!” Jesus came with the same message, but He knew that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father. Only Jesus could make it possible. Paul knew that he could not save anyone by his own power, but that sharing the truth of Christ would bring faith to all who hear and believe. It is by faith we are saved.
It is by God’s grace that we live in faith. Thanks to Christ Jesus our relationship with God has been restored and we have been called to trust in Him. In faith we can sing praise to God even in the midst of our troubles. We can turn to the Psalms to seek comfort and peace when the world around us seems to be falling apart. David sang, “To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.” The world is filled with injustices and we should work to reconcile neighbors to neighbors. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, but not to lay upon others the burdens of sin from the past.
It all begins with faith. God will judge; it doesn’t always seem fair, but we can trust that God is just and good and He will always do what is right. Thank goodness, because if He meted out justice according to the ways of the world, we would all deserve to suffer His wrath. Thankfully, we are made righteous by believing in Jesus and by His grace we are saved. By His obedience we are forgiven. By His life we are given eternal life.
So let us have the mind of Christ, humble and obedient before God. Let us hear His messenger and turn to Him, learning and following His Word. Let us trust that God is fair, in His way, and that He will be faithful to His promises for our sake and for the sake of the world. For God does not want any to die. We all belong to Him and He desires that we will all will know and experience His love and mercy into eternity.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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