Nov 8 = A Change of Heart (Matt 21:28-32)

Theme = Repentance, loyalty, service/workparable of the two sons

For many years I would distribute articles written by Child Magazine along with other Faith development resources that I had read in the 1990s. Then, the research suggested that children who were active in faith communities and worship, along with their parents, displayed higher levels of compassion, sympathy, and did well in schools as compared to those who did not. We stressed to parents that bringing our kids to worship or being part of a faith community would help them to become healthier and a good asset in our communities. We believed that the principles being taught were valuable to their lives as well as the lives of those in society. As parents, Lori and I believed this as well with our own boys. We still do!

Then this article was posted almost twenty-five years later. The article claims that children raised in a faith community now manifest higher levels of judgmental attitudes, and lack the compassion as those from non religious families. On the one hand the two articles clash. Is there a contradiction? Are both authors correct? Are we dealing with seemingly competing agendas?

Or, has something changed in the past twenty five years?

My knee jerk reaction, after reading the Oregon article, is to agree. After years in ministry, working in the community, counseling, and planting a church to marginalized communities, I have to admit—I hear many, many negative stories about our belief system. Authors such as Kimball, Claiborne, and Kinnamen have all reminded us that Christians are becoming less and less appreciated in America. I have also witnessed acts of anger, judgment, immaturity, and irresponsibility from young Christians that cause my jaw to drop.

And then there is the research from churches concerning racism, domestic abuse, and social justice. This condemns us as a movement in that it reminds us that the way we treat the little ones, is a reflection of God. However, I still have to admit that faith communities continue to pave the way in our communities when it involves reaching the homeless, the poor, trafficking, foster care, addiction recovery, and adoption. Many of the textbooks written for marriage ministry come from Jewish therapists who have a deep rooted faith. Relief work in third world countries by faith groups continues to amaze me. Communities continue to seek the support of faith leaders claiming that we are key to addressing issues in our cities, here and abroad.

So why am I troubled about the article? Maybe because I see that it describes a growing trend with our faith communities in the US. What has happened over the past twenty five years?

  • Financial Peace taught us that debt was wrong and hard work brings in money. What do we do with people in debt, or those who struggle to pay their credit cards?
  • Spiritual weight loss programs continue to teach us that spirituality and discipline (rather than genetics) is tied into body image, looks, and body size.
  • No matter how hard we try to address abuse, pornography, and trafficking—males need to learn that American cultural masculinity is causing issues in our culture—not feminism.
  • Our churches continue to be ethnically and socially segregated. We have admitted this needs to change yet we still accept it as the way things are.
  • As Martin Luther King once stated, we continue to make the unbiblical distinction between body and soul and suggest that social justice is not the way of Jesus.
  • As hard as we have worked to become missional/incarnational in our ministries, we still continue to stay separate from the world. Our main speakers continue to be speakers and authors, rather than practitioners.
  • I hear how many white Christians speak about our President, who is black. It is shameful. Even Paul wrote that Nero (one of the most corrupt and perverted men—his historian’s words not mine) was to be honored by God’s people. The early church did not accept disrespectful language of any leader. What do children learn from their parents who speak this way?

Are we surprised that our children judge by appearances, resist strangers, and struggle to be compassionate? Is it possible that people are learning these traits of compassion and love, now, outside of a community focused on a divine creator? Or is it possible that the past twenty five years have taught our future disciples that what they say is more important than what they do? Is it possible that we, as the ancients, have become comfortable in our words rather than our actions? Have we preached compassion and expected compassion, rather than practiced it? Are we “actors” rather than “acters?

The parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32) occurred in Matthew’s fourth block of his Gospel (19:1-23:1). In this section Jesus returned home to his own city of Jerusalem and the temple. As Yahweh he knew Jerusalem not only as the city of God, but the place that would reject him. Throughout the Bible Jerusalem struggled to not only follow their God, but to welcome their creator in their midst. The city, leaders, and people fought with idolatry, social injustice, and loyalty to Yahweh’s teachings. Jerusalem at times was loyal to their God while at other times rejected all the good that they received by the Lord’s hand. They had corrupt leaders, like any culture, and suffered for their choices. Lest we be judgmental, we must remember that all cities have had their good and bad leaders. However, this struggle at Jerusalem led Jesus to quote:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matt. 23:37)

For Jesus, Jerusalem and his people were not only stubborn, they were rebellious. Yet God loved them and saw Jerusalem as the city of Zion.

The parable of the two sons is a reflection of this relationship between Jesus/Yahweh and Jerusalem. First, it many times became a relationship of words rather than action. In Jeremiah 7:22-23 the prophet told the people that their God did not deliver them from Egyptian bondage and place more commands and sacrifices on them. The prophet told them, “I [Yahweh] gave them this command—Obey/Listen to me and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you that it may go well with you.” There it was. God wanted listeners, followers, and loyalty rather than complex sacrifices, words, and prayers.

God’s ways always involved action, commitment, and loyalty. To listen to God meant to obey (who would disobey the person you loved who asked you to do something)? There were always people who said “yes” but did little. For some, saying the right words and showing public displays of respect were all they required. Others believed that the heart was seen by action, not statements.

In the parable of the two sons, Jesus reminded the group that it was more about what one did than said. Too often we agree, consent, confess, and/or acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Yet this parable tells us that the Kingdom of God consists of actions rather than words. In fact, good actions can cancel out a rebellious statement.

The key, “doing what the father wanted” rather than “saying what the father wanted to hear” is what discipleship involves. Jesus earlier said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, sister, and mother,” (Matt. 12:30). Even if the one doing was a son who “talked back to his dad.” He spoke the words of disrespect rebellion and stubbornness. He told his dad, “no” even in spite of what it meant to “honor your father and mother…” even in public. How many people would have said, “What a disrespectful young man,” or “what an ungrateful son,” or even “how dare he tell his dad no!” Yet what mattered was that in the end he did what his father wanted.

Compare this with the “apparently good son.” “Sure dad,” or “yes sir, right away,” or even “yes daddy,” were on his lips but not his hands. How many people would have called him the loyal son, good son, or such a charming young boy?” Eddie Haskell has nothing on this son. However, in the end it was the one who “acted” rather than played as an “actor” that did what the father wanted.

Imagine Jesus standing and delivering this message. ON one side were the religious leaders who were questioning his actions. He had just turned over the table in the temple claiming that it was “his father’s house.” They were questioning him. They were the children who publicly said “yes sir father” yet they let the temple become a bazar. It had become a place of crooks and thieves rather than a place to worship. These were the children of words; actors who played the role (Jesus later used actor for hypocrite with them in chapter 23).

On the other side—tax collectors, prostitutes, and the crowd of disciples. Tax collectors were hired by Romans to extort the Jews. Prostitutes were hired by men to be extorted. Both groups represented the worst in a Jewish city, yet they both existed out of need. Tax collectors for the Romans need to control and prostitutes for men’s need to control. Yet these men and women, while publicly saying “no” to the father later said “yes” to John’s baptism and repentance. Repentance means to turn around, or change direction. They changed their minds, hearts, and bodies to do God’s will. In the end they would be saved, not the “actors.”

Imagine the scandal. The Kingdom of God was not only about action but the actions of one who publicly said “No!” Spirituality was less what words one used and more what things they did.

Is this true today? Does the article above tell us that our children are learning to say “Yes” and walk away? Is our world saying “No” to us and practicing the will of God somewhere else?

Is it possible that we might be able to say “Yes” and do the will of the father?

Is it possible that we can change what has happened over the past twenty five years?

In a culture where we judge by what is public, what is popular in our media, what is written, and what seems to look good—we must listen to this parable. Christianity is not measured in word but deed. Many Christians focus on “salvation by faith and not works” thinking that faith is a belief or way of thinking rather than a commitment to a relationship with God. Often I hear Christians suggest that we are judged by what we believe not our actions. Others tell me that we cannot judge a person’s actions because we do not know their heart. Yet Jesus, and the Bible, suggests the opposite. People’s actions are a reflection of their belief system, heart, and convictions. The first son repented by doing what God wanted—not by saying what God wanted to hear. Prayers are not times to say what we think God wants, but to speak to God as people who deeply love and want to obey.

  1. How were the two sons’ actions different than their words?
  2. Are there times we resist what God wants, but turn and do the right thing?
  3. What does this story have to say to your discipleship, spiritual growth, and relationship with God?