Today we heard my very favorite kind of story: a story about a guy who changes his mind. As I had occasion to say a few months ago, I’m a huge fan of that great Dorothy Parker quote—I think it’s Dorothy Parker: If you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one?
Today’s gospel begins and ends with changing minds.
There was a man who had two sons. We know a great story is coming, right? We’ve heard this before: it’s a scriptural archetype. We meet men (and women) with two sons—and daughters—throughout the bible. In each of these stories we have a chance to ask ourselves whom we identify with. Are we vindictive like Cain, or innocent like Abel? Are we more like Jacob, the beloved trickster son, or more like Esau, hard-working but full of disappointment? Am I Rachel, who causes all kinds of trouble, or am I more like Leah, cross-eyed, loving, and faithful? Am I the squandering prodigal son begging for forgiveness, or am I the older son who has been good all my life? Are you a task-oriented Martha or a contemplative Mary?
And with today’s story: are we more like the one who says I’m in!, and then isn’t? Or are we the ones who say I can’t or I won’t do something, and then do it after all?
Some of us may have an easier time putting other people into this story than ourselves. I don’t need to have two sons to map this story into our family. Sometimes our teenager is the first son; sometimes he’s the second. Most often, he’s like the first son, whose words say “no” and whose actions say “yes.”
As we put ourselves into the story we just heard, we might realize that the primary relationship in this parable is not between the two brothers, or even between father and son. The primary relationship is an inside job: the relationship between each son and himself. The story leaves us with some questions. Did the second son intend to go work in the vineyard and then change his mind? Or did he never intend to go? Was he lying to his father all along? Were his original intentions good or bad? And in the case of the first son, what caused his change of mind?
I have always wanted to preach a sermon on that great evangelical message made famous by the country western singer Randy Travis, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I thought this parable might give me an occasion to do just that. However, the fact that we don’t know whether the original intentions of the first son—the one who actually goes into the field to work—were good or bad tells us that in some cases, intentions are beside the point. Almost everyone has good intentions. It is ultimately our actions that matter.
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Jesus preaches this parable to religious leaders who probably showed up to hear John the Baptist before Jesus came on the scene, and perhaps were even baptized by John. But a funny thing happened to these faithful followers on the way to Jesus: they got lost. Or distracted. Or stuck on something other than the kingdom of God. Like the second son, they didn’t follow through, and didn’t follow the One John came to proclaim. Today’s parable is an invitation to them, and to us, to walk the talk.
There’s a wonderful story by David Griebner, which I know some of you have read, called the Carpenter and the Unbuilder. Here’s the Cliff notes version:
There was a man who received a dinner invitation from his king. This was the invitation of a lifetime. A huge deal and he knew it. With a lot of care and deliberation, he packed everything he needed for the multi-day slog to the king’s palace. He was a carpenter, and brought with him some tools of the trade so that he could build himself a rough shelter each night along the way. The story goes into great suspense-filled detail, but I’ll just tell you what happens: he gets completely derailed from his destination by the beautiful house he builds for himself along the way. At several points he is reminded of his journey, and his excitement about dinner with the king, and he moves on. But always he stops and builds himself another house and moves in, sometimes for years.
This is who Jesus preaches about in today’s gospel: people who begin the journey into the kingdom of God and get distracted. The gospel is not about good son/bad son, but about people who fix their hearts on the kingdom of God and people who lose their way.
Ironically, Jesus tells us, it is the people whom polite society might think have lost their way— prostitutes and tax gatherers—who do not get stuck on their way to the kingdom. Those who are willing to change their minds for Jesus are included in the Kingdom. Truly I tell you, Jesus says to his audience (and the audience was probably made up of real people who have said they’re in, when they’re not), the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. And so tax collectors and prostitutes are added to the list of folks we have heard about for the past several Sundays, who are included into the kingdom: debtors, laborers of all kinds, late arrivals and people who never knew they were called to be servants of God.
The invitation to the kingdom of God is for all of us, even those who need to change our mind to accept the invitation. There is a lovely invitation to communion used in the Iona community, in Scotland, which includes these words:
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often, and you who have not been for a long time, you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
This is our altar call, our invitation to this altar, and an invitation to go work in the field of the kingdom. Our altar call is the invitation to join Jesus, right now, today, in proclaiming a new world order, where justice, inclusion, healing, and grace are the laws of the land. The invitation, the proclamation, the journey—they are right now, and they are forever.