Proper 22A: Harvest Season

WorldCommunionSunday-46619_232x117OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Israel’s destiny is rooted in the self-disclosure of God. These commandments should be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation of who God is and how God shall be “practiced” by this community of now-liberated slaves. For the Israelites, God and the Way of God is known as Torah; God’s nearness is expressed as righteousness. This version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus was probably written and edited in light of the exile in Babylon. The specific laws would have been selected from among the many social and moral laws over many generations. It is probable that they did not magically drop out of the sky but rather grew out of a people’s understanding of who God was.

The people are first reminded that God has already saved them before, bringing them out of slavery, bringing them into relationship with God. But you can’t help noticing that these commandments are formative of who one is before God and how one lives in response to God.

You will notice that the “commandments”, as we know them come in distinct groupings. The first three commandments are preoccupied with the awesome claims of God’s person—who God is, who God is for us, how we revere and respect God. The fourth commandment honors the majesty of God, but also prepares us for relationship with God and relationship with others. The other six commandments have to do with relationships with others—how we act in the world toward others. It is really very simple: You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (with all that you are, with every essence of your being) And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (But it’s interesting to note that there is some conflict in the way the commandments should be numbered. There are several different ways of presenting them between the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Reformed Protestant traditions. So if that’s confusing, maybe you can just think of them as a call to loving God with all you are, with moving toward being wholly and completely the child of God that you were created to be.)

But God’s grace, as we are reminded, happened before any of these laws were laid down. It is expected, then, that in response to the salvific nature of God, the people will want to respond and stay in relationship with God. In Hebrew, these laws are known as the “ten words”, and for the most part are expressed in brief sentences. Tradition says that God gave these words directly to the people and then later Moses is summoned to receive the tablets on which they are written for posterity. (Exodus 24: 12-18)

Torah, or “law”, is really more about teaching and positive instruction rather than a list of rules, the way we would normally interpret “laws”. Think of it more like the law that we talk about when we say “natural laws” or “the laws of nature”. It is the way things are; it is the way order, rather than chaos and relationship, rather than separation ensues. It is the way that God draws us into God. The purpose of the “law”, then, is to choose life. From that standpoint, it’s probably not always helpful to go through the commandments one rule at a time as if they were a check list. We need to be clear that together they voice the larger and demanding vision of God that defines Biblical faith. (Notice that the second commandment brings into this vision all of Creation. Nothing in Creation is beyond God’s sovereign mystery.

In our modern-day society, there are those who have tried to make these words “law” in the judicial sense, simply by displaying them in courthouses or public buildings. But they are missing the fact that these are not laws to obey but the natural way that we are called to respond to the freedom of God. Rather than dictating what we should do, they depict who we are as a people of God.


It is a monstrous distortion of who and what [God] is to think that the self-revelation which took place on Sinai was nothing more than the proclamation of a legalistic code…

We Christians would do well to remember that the most joyous celebration in Judaism is the yearly feast of Simchat Torah, “the joy of Torah.” On this wild festival day, the Torah scroll is removed from the synagogue and in a long and exuberant parade through he streets of the city, is passed from hand to hand through the crowd. All the while, there is much singing and drinking and dancing. I was privileged some years ago to be in Tiberius, Israel on Simchat Torah. I will never forget the wild joy of the people as they danced through their streets to their holy cemetery, which contains the bodies of some of Judaism’s most revered figured, the great twelfth-century thinker Maimonides among them. After witnessing that energetic parade, and all the joyful faces streaked with sweat, I could never again think that the Torah was a burden for Jews. The Torah was a gift, that much was obvious to me that day. Similarly, the Ten Commandments are God’s gift, not only to the Jews, but to us who would claim that we have been rescued from our slavery, brought out of bondage by a mighty hand, and have been promised a new land. In that new land we are commanded by that God to live together in a community of justice and righteousness. The Ten are the foundation document for that new community…

Our age needs the Ten Commandments again, but not as sterile laws, hung on school room doors and court room walls. We need the living and vital Ten Commandments, all Ten, to remind us of the God who gave them and to remind us of what that God wants us finally to become. (Dr. John Holbert, The Ten Commandments: The Great Texts—A Preaching Commentary, p. 137-138)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What meaning for covenant do you see here?
  3. In what ways (if any) are these commandments formative for you?
  4. Which of these commandments or “groupings” is hardest for you—who God is, honoring Sabbath, or relating to others?
  5. Why do we often try to “legalize” the Ten Commandments?
  6. What would it mean to think of these Commandments as a “gift”?


NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 3: 4b-14

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Some of the language in this passage is just odd for us. The idea of confidence or boasting is usually not looked upon as a positive thing. (I mean, what happened to that whole humility thing?) And boasting because of privileges of birth and circumstance is even more bizarre. But here, Paul is making the claim that where boasting in other circumstances separates us from others, boasting or being in Christ unites all who boast for him. In the realm of the Spirit, distinctions are abolished. No one is better than the next.

This passage begins with Paul boasting about his own life and his own self. In fact, he sort of presents his resume’, as if he is quashing any readers or onlookers who might consider themselves above him. And then, just as quickly, he deflates himself. He essentially now claims that whatever good (or bad) that he’s done in the past is nothing in terms of his knowing Christ. We need to understand that Paul is not tossing away his past. He still claims it—good and bad. It is part of who he is. But he uses it to put it all in perspective. For him, the things that he valued in the past are no longer as important to him. (And the things that he regretted in his past are no longer in his way either.)

Paul now realizes that whoever and whatever he claims to be is because of God through Christ. The promise of new life is what now urges him forward in his journey. He, admittedly, is not there but he sees his journey as one of faith and one of life with Christ. This also sort of disputes those who claim that the “prize”, the “goal”, the “reward”—whatever they choose to call it—is because of who they are or what they’ve done. According to Paul, it is nothing WE do; rather, it is something that God does for us. Our journey, then, is a journey of faithfulness in the hope that God has promised.

We need at least four terms in English—“faith”, “belief”, “trust”, and “faithfulness”—to convey all the meanings of one Greek noun, pistis. The word represents more of a “totality” of life than any one of our translations suggest. To trust in something means to rely on it and complete trust means that there is no need to rely on anything else. So if we put our whole trust in God, we must abandon all other props in our lives. Paul emphasizes that he has not yet reached his goal, but the “yet” shows his trust in reaching it. For Paul, the “prize” for which he is aiming is the realization of his own calling from God brought to fulfillment.

This is also a treatise on faith itself. Paul would claim that blindly following rules of the religion (or even commandments) is not what brings one closer to God. That would be a belief that loses perspective, that lets the rules and the understandings get in the way of one’s faith. Paul is not claiming that he is better than others because he is better-versed in the faith; if anything, he is disputing that very claim.

Paul would probably contend that we are called to strip ourselves of those things that get in the way of our faith, that impede us on our journey toward that oneness with God. Paul is reminding us that included in that is a call to let go of our past, let go of the “I” that we’ve built ourselves up to be, and let go of the understandings that frame how we view God. It is a call to open ourselves to God’s movement in our lives and God’s guidance on this journey that we call faith. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same, journeying toward God, guided by God, thirsting for God. Tony Campolo tells this story in one of his online sermons:

Where do you meet Jesus? Well, first of all I contend you meet Jesus in suffering people. If you look deeply into the eyes of suffering people, you will have this eerie awareness that the same Jesus that died on the cross is staring back at you. Mother Teresa learned that, and I’m learning that.

I was walking down the street in Philadelphia and a bum came towards me. I mean a dirty, filthy guy. He was covered with soot from head to toe. You couldn’t believe how messed up he was. He had this huge beard and there was rotted food stuck in the beard. As he approached me, he held out a cup of McDonald’s coffee and said, “Hey mister, want some of my coffee?” I looked at his dirty, filthy personhood and said, “Thanks, but that’s okay,” and I walked by him. The minute I passed him, I knew I was doing the wrong thing, so I turned around and said, “Excuse me. I would like some of your coffee.” I took some of the coffee and sipped it and gave it back to him. I said, “You’re being generous. How come you’re being so generous today?” And this bum looked at me and he said, “Because the coffee was especially delicious today and I think that when God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people.” I didn’t know how to handle that, so I said, “Can I give you anything?” I thought that he would hit me for five dollars. He said, “No.” Then he said, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve changed my mind, there is something you can give me. You can give me a hug.” As I looked at him, I was hoping for the five dollars! He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. And as I in my establishment dress and he in his filthy garb hugged each other on the street, I had the strange awareness that I wasn’t hugging a bum, I was hugging Jesus. I found Jesus in that suffering man.

Whenever you meet a suffering person, you will find that Jesus is there waiting to be loved in that individual. That’s why Jesus said, “In as much as ye do it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” You cannot reach out to a person in need, you cannot embrace somebody who’s hurting, you cannot minister to somebody who is in desperate straits without having that eerie and wonderful awareness that Jesus is coming back at you right through that person. If there is anything that Mother Teresa would have taught us, that’s what she would have taught us. (Tony Campolo, “Knowing God”, 30 Good Minutes, October 26, 1997, available at, accessed 17 March, 2010).


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What relationship do you see in this to the Exodus passage?
  3. Are there things on your “resume’” that make faith a challenge for you?
  4. What happens to us and our relationships when we let things like that come into play?


GOSPEL: Matthew 21: 33-46

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This passage continues from last week’s on the question of Jesus’ authority. Perhaps Jesus thought that if they didn’t get the first parable, he’d try another! It’s about a vineyard that has been carefully and lovingly planted by its owner. It is fertilized and watered; it is protected from harm; it is pruned and shaped, then it is tilled and aged to perfection. The vineyard has all of the necessary resources to produce a wonderfully rich harvest. It is the same story of God forming and reforming, of God breathing life into Creation, told a different way. And, again, the one who planted the vineyard entrusts its care to someone else.

But, the text claims, the harvest is not what was expected. Those responsible for the vineyard have not been good stewards. The harvest has fallen prey to greed and selfishness and a lack of trust between the workers and the owner. And so the owner sends his son, an extension and part of the owner’s own self. But the world rejects the son and, thereby rejects the owner. But the vineyard is not a vineyard like those to which the world is accustomed. And in a sweeping reversal, the owner takes that which has been rejected and makes it the thing most precious, the very foundation of the vineyard itself.

The tale is obviously meant to be read as an allegory, which means every word and image essentially means something else. So, don’t get too wrapped up in a literal understanding of it. In the first century understanding of it, the hearers would have remembered another tale of a vineyard from the writings that we attribute to the Prophet Isaiah. That writing depicts the vineyard as the people of Israel, the pleasant planting that had not turned out quite the way that God envisioned. But just as the understanding of God’s Creation becomes wider and more encompassing, the writer of Matthew’s version of the Gospel, takes this vineyard image and lays it out as a metaphor of the whole Kingdom of God, a sweeping reversal of powers and kingdoms to which we are accustomed, a Kingdom built with Christ as the head and cornerstone, the Christ that humanity once rejected. But even that rejection did not undo the vision that God holds. Instead God once again re-visioned the Kingdom and gathered us in. Once again, God invited us into God’s Creative activity. And that makes us, my friends, the laborers.

In the context in which it was written, the addressees are clearly the chief priests and Pharisees, the Jewish leadership, rather than the people as a whole. From that, the writer may be trying to claim that God will replace the false leadership with faithful leaders. But this understanding has through the years fueled anti-Semitism and implied that God has rejected Israel. I don’t think that’s really the intent. Lest we Christians become comfortable with the idea of Jesus rejecting those of the Jewish tradition on those grounds, we need to remember that we, too, are really good at laying out our rules and our understandings of who God is. We, too, are good at shutting people out of the kingdom and presenting a vision that is not in line with the one that God holds.

The focus here has more to do with the making of a new people (or a remaking of the “old people”), which would obviously call for new leadership. But the text claims that God’s people are now called to carry responsibility for enabling Israel, or God’s Kingdom, to bear fruit. The new people will now carry responsibility for tending the vineyard. The rejected stone and his people will assume leadership. The community is now in a position to learn and to celebrate the life of God in the vineyard. But the community is us.

It all but forces us to look at our lives, our specific attitudes and actions, in light of whether they represent an embrace or a rejection of the message of Jesus, the Son of God. As Christians we do well to focus not so much on what the passage has to say about Jewish leaders as what it implies about Christians. The “others” to whom the vineyard is given over in verse 41 are also responsible to the owner, charged with producing the fruits of the kingdom (v. 43).

What implications might this parable hold for how we are producing a harvest for God’s kingdom in our personal and public lives? What would this parable have to say to that troubling relationship we have with our child, our parent? What does it have to say to our inability to forgive ourselves? What does it have to say to us as we live, knowing that someone, whose opinion matters deeply to us, condemns us in some central way? What does this parable have to do with our reflection on the criminal justice system, the death penalty? What relevance might it have to our responsibility to help people in our society who, some would say, have brought their troubles upon themselves? The wicked tenants try God’s patience. So do we. We don’t know how they will respond next to the extended, undeserved mercy of God. How will we? (Alyce McKenzie, “Who are the Wicked Tenants?”, available at, accessed 28 September, 2011.)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is uncomfortable about this passage for you?
  3. How do you relate that to the Exodus passage?
  4. This Sunday is World Communion. What does that say about the vineyard?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


If indeed we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength, we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls, whether our years are three score and ten or not yet twenty. God cannot lodge in a narrow mind. God cannot lodge in a small heart. To accommodate God, they must be palatial. (William Sloane Coffin)


I want to beg you as much as I can…to be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…Do not now seek answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter to a Young Poet)


Christ became human that we might become divine. (Athanasius, 3rd century)





Here in this place new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away, see in this space our fears and our dreamings, brought here to you in the light of this day. Gather us in—the lost and forsaken, gather us in—the blind and the lame; call to us now and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name.


We are the young—our lives are a mystery, we are the old—who yearn for your face, we have been sung throughout all of history, called to be light to the whole human race. Gather us in—the rich and the haughty, gather us in—the proud and the strong; give us a heart so meek and so lowly, give us the courage to enter the song.


Here we will take the wine and the water, here we will take the bread of new birth, here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth. Give us to drink the wine of compassion, give us to eat the bread that is you; nourish us well, and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true.


Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place the new light is shining, now is the Kingdom, now is the day. Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own; gather us in—all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone. Amen.


 (“Gather Us In”, by Marty Haugen, in The Faith We Sing # 2236)

Proper 21A: Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Moses Striking the Rock, Nicolas Poussin, Shipley Art Gallery
Moses Striking the Rock, Nicolas Poussin, Shipley Art Gallery

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 17: 1-7

Israel’s life in the wilderness, even after liberation, is precarious at best. They proceed as the Lord commanded, but there is no water. They are missing the most elemental resources for life. So they begin to complain against Moses, questioning his leadership and his effectiveness. Moses, of course, is blameless. And he reprimands Israel for not only blaming him, but also for testing God. God’s answer does not address whether or not Moses is a good leader, but addresses the problem of the people’s thirst.

Now this is not the first time that the Israelites have been thirsty. In Chapter 15, we are told that they had been in the wilderness for three days and found only water that was undrinkable. Upon complaining, they were provided with a piece of wood that, when placed in the water, made the water sweet and palatable. Then in Chapter 16, we are told the story of God providing the manna, bread from heaven, in response to the people’s fears that they would starve to death. Here, they complain again. They are once again ridden with doubts—doubts about Moses as a leader, doubts about God, and even, it seems, doubts about themselves.

The point is clear—only God can give the resources for life, but God will do so through the work of Moses. The story is told as a witness of faith in order to place God’s fidelity and attentiveness right in the middle of the human drama as it moves from hunger to fullness and thirst to water. Walter Brueggemann points out that in most advertising that we know, the “commodity” (i.e., here, the water) becomes the substitute for God and the answer to life’s problems. But is this really meant to be that way? Or is it once again a calling to open our eyes and see the things that God has already provided in our lives? Truth be told, it is easy for us to sort of dismiss these complaining Israelites. (Good grief, we think, shut up already and look around you. Don’t you see what God has done?) And yet, lest we think we are immune to such thoughts, how many times do we “doubt” God when life does not go as planned? How many times do we fail to see what God has provided simply because we’re looking for something else?

It is interesting to note that we are never actually told whether or not water came out of the rock. We are told that Moses hit the rock, but what happened? We sort of read into it that water came gushing out, alleviating all fear of thirsting to death and all questions regarding the presence of God. But, really, is that the point? After all, Moses didn’t name the place “God Provides”; he called it Massah and Meribah, derived from the words for “test” and “quarrel”. By naming the place in this way, Moses reminds all future generations of the shortcomings of the people’s faith—and of our own. In essence, the narrator turns the problem back toward the people. It becomes a story of “unfaith”. What gets in the way was not God’s response or lack thereof but, rather, the Israelites lack of trust of God. This story of “unfaith” sort of critiques that view of religion that judges God by whatever outcome the asking community received. God does not reward and punish people based on whether or not they deserve it.

Now, in Israel’s defense, this was true thirst. In this passage, I don’t think “thirst” implies a metaphorical spiritual thirst. They needed water. This story is set in the wilderness. It’s hard for us to imagine true wilderness—no resources, no direction. And the desert must be the wilderness of all wildernesses. Without trees, there is no way to gauge where you are or how far you’ve come. Any shadow or dark spot is worthy of suspicion as something of which you must be aware. And rather than the path being hard to see or hard to tread, it is continually changed by the winds and sands. And yet, wilderness is over and over again the setting through which people find their faith.

Implicit in this story is an account of egos being tripped up—both for Moses and his followers. The Israelites thought they deserved something better. They thought that if they followed God and did what they were called to do, God would reward them. They didn’t have the faith to know that God was with them. They wanted it NOW. And for Moses, he fell into the trap of thinking that he was doing everything right, that the people should just shut up and listen to him. He forgot that he was instrument of God.

The image of thirsting is profoundly human. It is a deep human need. But when our needs become more important than the source from which we came, then fears and panic set in. Alexander Baillie says that “one needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful…One cannot be satisfied until one…ever thirsts for God.”

This is considered one of those “murmuring” stories of the Old Testament. We do the same thing. We let our fears and our images of what “should” be get in the way. We look for someone to blame—there, our leader, the one who brought us out into this god-forsaken place or this economic downturn or this global recession. It is easier to blame someone else. And the murmuring begins, getting louder and louder as more and more of us join in, as more and more networks join in the quintessential blame game, demanding answers, demanding action. It, in fact, becomes so loud and so obnoxious that we lose all awareness that the answer is right there in front of us. Maybe it takes a wilderness, a true thirst, to finally encounter God. And maybe it takes a wilderness, a true thirst, to finally see ourselves, to finally realize what this life of faith is all about. It’s not about whether or not God answers us; it’s not about whether or not we get what want or what we think we deserve; and it’s definitely not about who’s right or who’s wrong or who’s in charge. It’s about letting the question hang on our lips long enough for us to realize that the answer was there all along—that the God who brought us here, the God who liberated us and leads us through the wilderness, is not “out there” or “up there” or in a place to which we are going. We are not trying to “get” to God. God is here. We just have to open our eyes and our minds to what that means. “Is the Lord among us or not?” And God patiently waits for the answer.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think this tells us about God in our own lives?
  3. What do you think Moses learned from this?
  4. Are there ways that we may fall into “testing” God?
  5. How often do we substitute commodities for God’s sustenance?
  6. How, then, do you answer the question, “Is God among us or not?”
  7. For what do you thirst? 


NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 2: 1-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage contains one of the most well-known texts of the New Testament. Beginning with verse 5, the Christological Hymn, the Kenosis Hymn, from the Greek word ekenosen, meaning “to empty” begins. At its most basic, it is telling the reader to “be like Jesus”. But, more than that, it is saying “let the very mindset of Christ be yours.” It presents this mindset as a way of emptying oneself in order to be filled with God, to be the image of God.

Paul is not dismissing this as a call to not worry about one’s salvation, but, rather, to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in you. Kristin Swanson makes the claim that many of us look upon God as a giant ATM machine, dispensing what we need when we need it. But this passage is presenting not a static, dispensing God, but a God who is at work within you. This attitude, this mind of Christ means that one has knowledge of the good and understands that good as a gift of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving…It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.” The hymn that we read in Philippians speaks of “the God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” To put it into more modern language, God is in our will, our desires, our fears, our thoughts, our needs, and our work. Again, God is not “out there” but is present and part of each and every aspect of our lives. No longer can we be spectators. We are part of God.

And because we are part of God, the answer to suffering in this life cannot be limited to some future glorification or “evening out” of all the horrors and abuses of this life. Rather, because God is in us, because we are part of God, because God is always at work in us, we are called to confront injustices, to bring peace, and to bring that freedom of Christ to all. This hymn is not merely about knowing Christ; it is about becoming Christ in this life. Christ came as a human to show us how to do that. Christ came as a human to show us the God who is part of us all.

In the 1950-s, Sao Kya Seng, the prince of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma, also known as Hsipaw, came to Denver, Colorado, to study agriculture. Since he wanted to experience what it was like to be a student in the US, he kept his identity secret. Not even his professors knew who he really was. One of his fellow students was Inge Sargent from Austria. Both of them being exchange students, Inge and the Burmese prince quickly found that they had a lot in common and started to spend more and more time together. Their friendship grew into love but the Burmese prince decided that he would not let on his true identity even though they were seriously dating. He did not want Inge’s decision to date him to be colored by the fact that she could marry into royalty. So when he finally proposed, with an engagement ring of ruby and diamond, Inge still did not know who he really was. Inge said yes and they got married, as any other couple, in the US. For their honeymoon, Sao Kya Seng was taking Inge to his home country, so that she could meet his family and see where he was from. When their ship reached the shores of Burma, hundreds of people were waiting at the harbor. Many of them had gone out in small boat, holding up welcoming signs. A band was playing and some people were tossing flowers at the ship. Surprised at all this excitement Inge turns to her husband, and asks whose arrival they are celebrating. “Inge,” he says, I am the prince of Hsipaw. These people are celebrating our arrival. You are now the princess.” (From Twilight over Burma: My Life As a Shan Princess, by Inge Sargent., in “God Incognito”, a sermon by Sigurd Grindheim, available at, accessed 20 September, 2011)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to you to “empty” yourself?
  3. What does it mean to become Christ in this life?
  4. What does this hymn say to us in our time today? 


GOSPEL: Matthew 21: 23-32

This passage begins a section when Jesus enters the Temple. The first part deals with the challenge of Jesus’ authority and then continues with a parable of the two sons. This is the last time that Jesus enters the Temple. After this, the high priests and elders begin to plot his death. This text puts John and Jesus in the same category—those who reject John also reject Jesus. Both are from God, yet are very different. Their differences include religious styles as well as the fact that John wavered and wondered, while Jesus spoke with unrelenting authority. When Jesus asks “What do you think?” as he begins the parable, he does not allow the silence to stand. Those who had tried to trap Jesus end up being condemned. They were the ones that were not willing to allow change into their existence. They were the ones that were not willing to be changed by God. They were so focused on protecting God that they missed hearing God. It is a matter of words and actions, profession and practice.

The parable that Jesus tells sets up a comparison between two sons–one who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, with one who says he won’t, but does. For every individual who hears this parable the comparison compels them to ask the question, Which am I? Am I the son who presents himself as obedient while running around raising havoc, or am I the daughter who to all appearances is the “black sheep” but in the end does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you? There is an accusation in the parable — some who claim to obey God and observe the requirements of the Law fail, in actuality, to do so. There is also (again) a reversal of expectations in the parable — those who are seen as the antithesis of the “good” believer, some who have failed to live in the right way, will be given entry to the kingdom of heaven first.

After telling the parable, Jesus returns to John. You know, John was sent to you, you leaders, you knowledgeable ones, you believers. But, interestingly enough, it was not you who accepted him. It was the tax collectors and the prostitutes and those in the bowels of your great society, those to whom you would never even pay attention that heard John’s message. What is that about? Why is that? Perhaps it was because you were so sure that you had the answer that you quit searching for it. Perhaps it was because you were so sure that you were right that you quit asking the questions. Is that really where you want to be?

If we take this passage as merely an indictment against the Pharisees, the chief priests and elders, if you will, I think we have probably missed the point. The same danger is there for us. We believers, we learned Bible-followers (even those of us who sometimes may dare to push orthodoxy to the edge!) always and forever run the risk of assuming that we have it figured out, that we know the right way, that we know what God wants (or who God wants!). And the fact that each of us is reading this passage and asking, “Which am I”, probably does not bode well for our understanding of it. Are we the faithful one or the unfaithful one? Does it really matter? They both lied. The only difference is that one of them came around. We know that’s the hero. But lest we get too comfortable with this scenario, faith and commitment are not just a one-time thing. As Elisabeth Elliot says, “the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.”

I think God wants us to ask questions. I think God wants us to keep searching. Most of all, I think God wants us to be open to the notion that the Truth of God is not limited to the pulpit or the teacher. It is not gleaned only from the Bible scholar or the righteous one. It is not fully represented by the one who sits in their assigned pew every Sunday morning and places the appropriate amount of offering in the collection plate. Sometimes the Truth that is God is found in the dusty nooks and crannies of the world, in those places that are not acceptable or desirable or sanitized. Sometimes God shows up in the most God-forsaken places imaginable like dirty gutters and dusty roads, like battlefields and pastures of starving children in the Horn of Africa, and, oh yeah, like a dirty trough in a grotto filled with animal waste or a place of execution on a hillside outside of Jerusalem. (You know, God shows up in the most bizarre places!) So, for those of us who think we know where and how to look for God, perhaps this is our calling to be open to the possibility that God is simply waiting for us to open our eyes and believe in what we see. The vineyard is waiting for us to get to work. Any more questions?

We would rather direct this parable to others. Lord knows we can point fingers. There are the right-wing Christians, the TV evangelists with the success gospels, the megachurches with their thousands. But this parable is addressed to us.

The world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us all over again what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Niger. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, that they will soon die from malnutrition. This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.

In every church I have served I still remember a few particular names and faces. Sometimes these are people who could not pray in public and were not comfortable teaching Sunday school. Some would not even serve on committees. Some had little formal education. But they were the ones with a casserole, the ones writing me a note when I needed it the most, the ones taking folks who didn’t own cars to the grocery store, and the ones whispering as they took my hand at the back door, “I pray for you every day.” Some living sacrifices do not slip off the altar.

My son sent me a bulletin from the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. One Sunday he stood in a long line of visitors to listen to Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school. He stayed for the worship service and sent me the program for the day. My eye stopped at this notice in the bulletin: Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.

It’s not always the one who talks or preaches or teaches who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a hot Saturday afternoon to dust the pews, take out the trash, cut the grass — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake. (Excerpt from “Showing Up”, a sermon by Roger Lovette, available at, accessed 20 September, 2011.)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Do you see any part of your own life in this parable?
  3. Where do you find yourself?
  4. How does this fit in with our time today?
  5. What is most bothersome about this passage for you?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


You and I are incomplete. I’m unfinished. I’m unfixed. And the reality is that’s where God meets me is in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people’s lives at the worst possible time of their life. (Mike Yaconelli)


Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. (Ann Weems)


Judge a [person] by his questions rather than by his answers. (Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet), 18th century)





Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you.

I’m chewing on the morsel of a proverb; I’ll let you in on the sweet old truths,

Stories we heard from our fathers, counsel we learned at our mother’s knee.

We’re not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation—

God’s fame and fortune, the marvelous things he has done.


He performed miracles in plain sight of their parents in Egypt, out on the fields of Zion.

He split the Sea and they walked right through it;

He piled the waters to the right and the left.

He led them by day with a cloud, led them all the night long with a fiery torch.

He split rocks in the wilderness, gave them all they could drink from underground springs; He made creeks flow out from sheer rock and water pour out like a river.


Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you…the marvelous things he has done. Amen.


(Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16 (and then 1,4b repeated) in The Message / Remix, by Eugene Peterson, p. 998-999.)