Two sons. Both are asked by their Father to go to work in the vineyard. One refuses. Quite rudely, actually. The other agrees to go. But the one who refuses subsequently ‘changes his mind’ and does what his father asked, whereas the one who said he would go doesn’t.
We are all very familiar with this story: one of Jesus most well known parables and we may know the traditional interpretation of it: that Jesus was critiquing the religious leaders of the time, the very religious, the ones who had always said the right things; always gone to synagogue and sung the right things; who had apparently lived according to the rules of their society.
Jesus says that the religious people of his time just didn’t get, didn’t recognise, what God wanted. They were like the second son who had said that he would go and work in the vineyard, but actually did not go.
No Jesus commends the people who had behaved really badly by the standards of the time – the prostitutes and the tax collectors.
In Jesus time, the tax collectors were not like our wonderful overstretched HMRC civil servants…but more like the collectors of protection money for the Mafia known apparently as ‘leg breakers’ today for obvious reasons….not only that but they were working for the occupying Romans. They were co-operating with the enemy. They were traitors. The lowest of the low. Lower than the prostitutes.
But Jesus says that the tax collectors and the prostitutes had seen what He was doing (and John the Baptist before him) and had ‘changed their minds’ and had decided to follow him to actually do what he asked…and their lives had been transformed and, according to Jesus, ‘they were getting into the kingdom of God’ ahead of the religious people.
So I want to make two points about this little story:
Firstly, we need to ask ourselves which of the two sons we are…which of the two sons we are….
Secondly, what does Jesus expect of us as followers of Christ? What does it mean to work in the Vineyard?
So firstly which of the two sons are we?
Are we the first son who refuses to work in the vineyard but changes his mind or the one who says he will go but doesn’t…
There is a great danger with being ‘religious’. We can see our religion as a weekly task to be fulfilled like any other: Make the lunch – tick; Sweep the leaves – tick; Pay the bills – tick; Receive Communion – tick, but in fact, everything that we say and do in this service of Parish Communion is like a promise to God about what we believe and how we plan to live our lives. It is, or should be, a sharing of our hearts with Christ.
It’s no good just saying the words to Father God as we did in the confession: ‘grant that we may serve you in newness of life to the glory of your name’ if we have no intention of serving him…its no good saying, as we will do at the end of the service: Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth
Or even more strongly:
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.
There is no point in saying these things, if we have absolutely no intention of being a living sacrifice….no intention of living and working to God’s praise and glory. Its like being the second son saying “I will work in the vineyard’ and then not bothering to do so. Words used in worship need to be followed up by actual action in our lives. If we don’t even intend to do so, if we won’t try to do so, then maybe it is best not to say the words at all. Its just hypocrisy if we do.
Now, of course, God does not expect us to be perfect, we are bound to fail in some way, to some extent, because we are all sinners, but the question God is asking is ‘where is your heart?’ ‘is it for me, or against me?’ because it is one or the other.
It’s so easy to say the liturgy with which we are so familiar as if it is some sort of magical incantation; a sort of Harry Potter hocus pocus and to have absolutely no intention of carrying the words out later….
So are we, are you, am I, like the second son, who says he will work in the vineyardbut doesn’t actually do it?
Or are we like the first son?
Perhaps for most of our lives we have never been interested in God or any of the demands he places on our lives. We might have attended church for social reasons…to support the vicar (thank you incidentally if you do) because its the thing we do when we live in the country, out of noblesse oblige perhaps, or we don’t attend church at all we spend our Sundays in seeking pleasure….rather than seeking God.
But then a moment has come in our lives when we have seen ourselves as God sees us for who we actually are in God’s eyes that we are: sinful, dirty, shallow, unprincipled…..….lost. When we have seen ourselves as certainly no better than the prostitutes and tax collectors who on encountering Jesus ‘changed their minds’ who repented of their sins.
That was certainly me.
I remember being approached by a Christian at the law firm where I worked, someone who later went on to be ordained, he wanted to explain about Jesus. I told him, in very clear terms to get knotted! I was being asked to work in the Vineyard by the Lord but essentially I said ‘No’. Quite rudely, actually…
But then….on that holiday in the Philippines I spoke about last week I began to see myself as I truly am…how very truly lost I was….
If we are the first son we may not have spent our lives saying every Sunday that we would work in the Father’s vineyard but we have changed our minds, we have repented and off we go excited to be forgiven, excited by Father God’s amazing plan for the universe, engaging in everything that Jesus expects us to do….doing wonderful things and hoping to transform lives.
So firstly, which son are you? Which son am I?
Secondly, what does Father God expect of us? What does it mean to work in his vineyard?
I don’t know if you remember the Good Life. It was a 1970s sit com. A couple Tom and Barbara Good decide that they are going to live completely self sufficiently…..in Surbiton. Next door are their friends, the Leadbetters, who are living like most other middle class people of the 1970s. http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/goodlife/
I do recommend watching this series if you have Britbox as the humour stands up very well, even today. However, the key thing about Margot Leabetter is that unlike the Goods (who do everything themselves including all the gardening raising of pigs and vegetables looking after the goat etc)….Margot supervises….her daily and her gardener, she stands over them saying ‘don’t do it like that, do it like this’ ‘don’t plant that, plant this’ ‘Put it here….no no not there….’
There is a great opportunity for humour as the Goods, needing some extra cash decide to work as domestic servants, for their friends the Leadbetters during the Leadbetters’daily and gardener’s holiday…
Supervising a gardener is not gardening. Standing telling the churchwarden, maybe telling the vicar, what the church should be doing is not working in the vineyard. Jesus says: we are to work in the vineyard, to be the person who gives constant care to the vines, enabling them to be fruitful. Its hard work, it takes time.
Once we have recognised that we are the first son in this parable, we have repented, we are full of love and thankfulness to God for being saved and we want to go and work in God’s vineyard, what does this look like?
Its not just supervision and criticism. Its actual work. It means getting our hands dirty. It means that we are going to be willing to engage in the messiness of other people’s lives. Thats not just me as the vicar. Its each of us. We are ALL called to thisif we are the first son and not the second.
And the need is, I believe, greater now, with the consequences of Covid than it has ever been, in my life time.
So what can we do? Jesus calls us to love God and to love neighbour. Getting our hands dirty in God’s vineyard means loving God and loving neighbour.
First, we need to work in developing our own relationship with God because without this we won’t even want to work in the vineyard, reading the Bible daily, praying to him daily for our neighbours as well as our friends and families, as they face the challenges, which this Autumn and Winter will bring. It might even involve us attending Alpha …if all we can say about our faith is that we doubt…that’s no good to anyone in a crisis…..
We need our optimism to be evident in all our dealings with others and its work so that we can be salt and light in our community to achieve it.
It is a matter of self discipline and that’s hard work. We need optimism so that if we are asked by them to explain why we are up-beat about the future we can, (as is said in 1 Peter 3:16) give an account for the hope that we have in our lives, so that we can explain about Jesus, but only if they ask us! But if we are doing this properly then they will!
Secondly, we need to be willing to give practical help to those facing crises.
Practical help can be summarised as follows:
GIVE: in this parish this might mean contributing financially to the Winchester Villages Trust. As you know, this fund gives out small sums of money to tide over short term cash shortage emergencies to anyone in the villages who needs it, regardless of where they live (a big house or a small one) or who they are. Its all completely confidential. Please speak to Penny Russell or to me if you would like to contribute or if you need help….
BEFRIEND: to give practical help, to our neighbours involves getting to know them. Do we know everyone in the lane or, say, in the nearest five houses to where we live? Do they know us? Our nearest neighbours are our responsibility before God! Are we looking after them? Or have we fallen out with them? If so we need to put it right immediately!
Do they know that they can count on us in an emergency of any kind at all?
HELP: the practical help might even involve giving people a room to live in if things get really challenging and someone finds themselves without accommodation for a short period of time.
It might involve praying with them, hearing in total confidence about the crises in their lives and looking after them.
And of course, it could involve helping in Winchester or beyond with the food bank, the nightshelter, or at the prison the key thing is that work in the vineyard involves getting our hands dirty and that will involve not bossily pushing our way in but being known that we are here for them, listening to them and giving them practical help.
Are we ready for the Autumn and Winter of 2020, the time when the Lord is calling his sons and daughters to work in the vineyard, to show who we really are?
Because if we are willing to work in the vineyard, we will be amazed as the creator of the universe transforms lives and the challenges and gloom caused by Covid 19, this demonic disease, will seem trivial in comparison with the amazing sweep of the Almighty’s hand as he intervenes in their and our lives….
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 21:28–32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.