Matthew 21:23-32

Actions Speak Louder

October 8 2017

There once was a small community where everyone knew each other. There were very little secrets in the community – for everyone knew each other and pretty much knew everyone’s business. Everyone knew who went to the bars on Saturdays and who went to Church on Sundays. Everyone knew who was living a good “Christian” life and who was not. Everyone thought they knew who God was “smiling” on and who God was “frowning” on.   It was pretty simple to know who God was “smiling” on – all you had to do was go to Church and see who was there. These were the ones God was pleased with.  It was also pretty simple to know who God was “frowning” on – all you had to do was go to the bar and see who was there.  God was not pleased with them. 

            But there were some people who defied the easy description of who God was “smiling on” and who God was “frowning on”.  One man who defied the description was a man we’ll call Jeff Smith. Jeff was a member of the local church – but rarely attended. People knew that Jeff spent more time at the local bar that he did at Church. When he did attend Church he would be arrogant and rude to everyone. He always criticized everything –- from the music to the choir to the preacher. Jeff was a major contributor to the church – but it seemed to everyone that he thought his contributions gave him the right to “run the show” – so to speak – and he would threaten to “take his money elsewhere” if things were not done his way.  

            The members of the Church – and the minister – were not too fond of Jeff. In fact, they cringed whenever he did attend because they knew there would be trouble before the day was over. One day, though, the minister of this Church was out of town at a conference. He walked up to a group of men and introduced himself and told them what Church he served.  “Isn’t Jeff Smith a member of that Church?” one of the men asked. The minister replied: “Yes, he is a member of the church.”“He is a member, though not a particularly active member,” the minister added.  The other man then said something that shocked the minister:  “I’ll always be indebted to him, me and a lot of people like me,” the man said. “Indebted?” the minister said. “Yeah’ the man replied — he is the one who paid for my education. My education and a lot of people like me. I worked in one of his businesses after school when I was in high school. My senior year in high school, I got a note from him. He hardly ever spoke to me when I would run into him at work – but his note said something like: ‘I want to help you with college. You get into the best college you can, and I will see you through.’ That was all. I got in a good college and he paid just about every cent of it. And I wasn’t the only one. I expect that he must have footed the bill for a couple of dozen young people in that town.” “That’s hard to believe.” The minister replied – “I don’t think I have ever heard that of him.” “I bet you never will.” the man continued. “He asked us not to tell anybody about his generosity. He said he didn’t want everybody beating on his door asking for a handout. I think the real reason is that he is, deep down, a genuinely humble person. I do know for sure that he has sure done a lot of good in his own quiet way,” the man said. The man walked away  – as did the minister – but later the minister shared with a friend: “I don’t know about you, but I find such generosity, coming from a person like Jeff, annoying. It is annoying to me when those people, those people who are not self-evidently good people, those people who are not active church people, turn out to be such undeniably good people. Jeff is doing more for others than many of the people in my church who act so good but are doing so little. He’s doing more than I am doing. What do you think God thinks about that?”

Good question, isn’t it?

What do you think God thinks about that?

Who is doing what God wants them  to do – the man who is obnoxious and rarely attends Church – but helps others – or the person who sits in Church – looks good – can talk all day about God – and looks like the model Christian – but does not do what God calls us to do? Who is truly living the Christian life — the man who is obnoxious – but helps others – or the person who sits in church – looks good – can talk all day about God – looks like the model Christian – but does not do what God calls us to do? The answer is fairly simple – isn’t it? Of course the man who does things to help others is doing what God wants them to do more than the one who may look like the model Christian but does not have actions to back it up.

A fairly simple answer to a question – and yet one that we may not want to hear. I don’t know about you – but I don’t like hearing that someone who does not appear to be a Christian – maybe an obnoxious person who tries to “run the church” – or maybe even the neighbor who never darkens the door of the church – or maybe even the man or woman on the street who is drunk or high on drugs most of the time – I don’t like hearing that God may “smile on them” more than God “smiles on” those of us who come to Church every Sunday. You probably don’t like hearing it, either.

Maybe you’re thinking:

“What do you mean – these people who try to push people around – or try to impress others – or who have never darkened the door of the church – or who truly don’t look like ‘religious folks’ – might be doing God’s will better than we are?” Unfortunately, when we become offended by ideas like these – we are very close to the thinking like many of the Pharisees who confronted Jesus in our scripture passage before us today and throughout the gospels.   

You see — the Pharisees thought that they were impressing God by their knowledge of God’s laws and their outward displays of piety and their long robes and prayer shawls. They were the “good church people” of Jesus’ day.  They thought that if they “looked the part” of a Godly person God would think they were Godly people – and would overlook the fact that they did not actually do anything God wanted them to do and even looked for ways around actually obeying God’s laws.They thought that they were much better than – and God loved them much more than — the rabble – rouser named John or his cousin Jesus — who talked about God loving sinners – and even hung out with the worst sinners He could find. And when these sinners – these tax collectors – these prostitutes – and all kinds of other ne’er do wells said they had found God – had found religion – and began acting in ways that showed God to others – well, the Pharisees held them in suspicion and would have nothing to do with them.

The Pharisees were sure that God loved them better than “those people” – “those sinners” – and surely they would enter heaven before these repentant sinners ever would. Not so fast – Jesus says. In our scripture passage for today, Jesus tells a story about a man with two sons.  He asks the first son to go to work in the vineyard, and the son said that he wouldn’t — but changed he mind and did. He also asks the second son to go to work in the vineyard, and the second son said that he would – but didn’t. One son said “No” but did “Yes” — and the other who said “Yes” but did “No”. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asked. 

Not such a hard question to figure out. When Jesus asked the Pharisees that question – they correctly answered that the better son was the one who said “No” but then did what the father asked. 

      Maybe you parents will agree that you would prefer a son or daughter who finally did what you asked them to do over one who never did what you asked. Their talking back at first may not be exactly how you want them to respond, but you have to admit that it is better than the son or daughter who never does what you ask. Jesus told about these two sons to illustrate a point. His point was that too many times we are too quick to jump to too simple a conclusion when it comes to judging between who is “good” and who is “bad” – who God “smiles on” and who God “frowns on”. The Pharisees were quick to differentiate between the “good” and the “bad”.  The “bad folks ”in the eyes of the Pharisees were the sinners – for example the tax collectors and prostitutes — lowlifes all.  God was not happy with the way they lived.  Tax collectors in that day cheated people – and well — I don’t have to tell you what prostitutes did.  But when John the Baptist and then Jesus came preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” their preaching touched the hearts of many of these sinners – these “bad” people — and they repented.  Some of the tax collectors quit cheating and began following Jesus. Some of the prostitutes quit what they were doing and began to follow Jesus. Many of the tax collectors and prostitutes responded to John’s and Jesus’ preaching because they realized they were in the wrong – realized that they needed to live differently – and realized that they needed to repent and change the direction of their lives.  And they did! They repented!  They lived differently! They changed the direction of their lives!

 

      But who were the “good folks” in eyes of the Pharisees? These were the “religious folks” – the best of which were the Priests — the Scribes — and the  Pharisees. They heard John the Baptist and Jesus, too – but many of them, when they heard John and Jesus say  “Repent!” — thought he was just talking to the “bad folks” – the sinners.     They did not consider the fact that they were talking to them, and so they never repented. They never repented because they didn’t think that they needed repentance.  They thought of themselves as God’s faithful sons.  They thought that they were doing everything that they needed to be doing.  But they weren’t.  They made a great show of religion, but their hearts were far from God.  John called them a “brood of vipers”  — Jesus called them hypocrites.  So Jesus told this story of the two sons to drive home the point that the tax collectors and sinners who repented were way ahead of the great religious men and women who failed to repent.  He wanted them to see that just looking the part of the religious person – just giving “lip service” to God without really acting in God’s ways – was not impressing God at all.  

 

      Jesus told this story to let the religious folks who thought they were so “good” know that they needed to repent just like the tax collectors and prostitutes that they thought were so “bad” — and just like everyone else – needed to repent. Jesus told this story to let them know that – – if they did not repent and act in God’s ways – the “bad people” — tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners — who did repent would enter heaven – and they would not.

 

      Now – let’s return to that question you might have had a few minutes ago:“What do you mean – these people who try to push people around – or try to impress others – or who have never darkened the door of the church – or who truly don’t look like ‘religious folks’ – might be doing God’s will better than we are – — better than you are — better than I am”? Friends — what I mean is this.  Actions speak louder. I mean that – if you think you are better off than someone who is the worst sinner you can think of just because you come to church and sing and pray and listen for one hour a week – but don’t let it change who you are or how you live, you are sadly mistaken. I mean that – if you think you are better than others simply because you come to church – but you don’t truly do what God calls you to do – you are no more obedient to God than the son in Jesus’ parable who said would do what the father asked – but didn’t do it.

The son who originally said “no” – but then did what the father asked – turned out to be obedient.  The son who originally said “yes” – but did not do what the father asked – turned out to be disobedient. Their actions spoke louder. And Jesus says that the sinners who originally say “I don’t need God” – but end up repenting and living in God’s ways get into heaven before the religious people who act like they are so good – who say they will do what God told them to do — but do not do God’s will. The actions speak louder.

Who gets into God’s kingdom first? The sinners who originally say “I don’t need God” – but end up repenting and living in God’s ways – — or the religious people who act like they are so good – who say they will do what God tells them to do — but do not do God’s will? The answer is obvious – but threatening. It’s the people who actually do God’s will who enter the kingdom – not the ones who say they will do it but don’t. It’s the sinners who know they need to repent and follow God who get into God’s kingdom – not the “good people” who think they have not need to repent. Yea – just acting like you are going to do God’s will – looking good and playing the part – isn’t enough.  You have to actually do it. Yea – the actions speak louder. Amen.