“Promise or Performance?”
September 28, 2008 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
We put several items on Craig’s List recently: some old bookcases, a twenty year old lawnmower, a dishwasher, an electric stove. They all sold, eventually. Craig’s List is wonderful free on-line classified ad service. But it can be frustrating. Several people contacted us, sounded very interested, got our address and made an appointment to look at what we were selling. Then they didn’t show up. They said they would, but they didn’t.
Our parable today is a story about doing what we say we will. Do we do what we say in regard to Jesus? We say that Jesus is Lord, but does He have real authority over our lives?
The chief priests and elders wanted to know about Jesus’ authority. On the face of it, in verse 23, they merely asked Him to produce credentials, “By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?” In the previous part of the chapter, Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was proclaimed as the Messiah king. He entered the Temple and threw out the buyers and sellers, proclaiming it a house of prayer. He healed the blind and lame and received the praise of children. So they asked if Jesus had any right to do all this.
Both questions asked were pretty much the same, “Where does your authority come from?” There were only a few options: Jesus’ authority came from God. Or it came from human source, either Himself or others. Or it came from Satan. The question was the opening of a debate, a political debate about authority.
The attitude of the Jewish leaders was like that for most who watched the presidential debate Friday night. As analysts said afterward, “If you were a McCain supporter, you probably found his answers satisfying and believed he came out on top. If you were favoring Obama to start with, then you liked his answers and thought he was the better of the two.” If your mind was already made up, the answers you heard didn’t change anything. That’s how it was with the priests and elders. Nothing Jesus could say would change their minds.
So Jesus didn’t respond directly. Instead he posed His own question in verse 24, offering to answer their question if they would answer His: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
It appears Jesus was as evasive as any politician. He did what they do. He changed the subject. Asked about His leadership, He started talking about His dead cousin, John the Baptist, raising a theological question about his baptism. Like the candidates talking about financial firm bailout, He wouldn’t be pinned down.
Yet it doesn’t take much to see that Jesus was still on track. He answered a question with a question, but He had not changed the subject. They asked Him about his own authority. He asked them about John’s. Where does Jesus’ authority come from? Well then, where did John’s authority to baptize come from? The answers would be the same.
Verses 25 and 26 show cagey Jewish politicians hashing over their answer. Jesus gave them a dilemma. Did John get his mission from heaven or earth? From God or from human initiative? They were stuck. If they lie and said they believed John’s authority was heavenly, Jesus will catch the inconsistency. They didn’t believe John. They didn’t acknowledge him as a prophet or repent of their sins. But if they tell the truth, saying they believe John’s ministry was merely human, they will make themselves unpopular.
It was like voting on the financial bailout for congress. Vote against and do nothing and the consequences for our economy seem disastrous. Vote for it and you’ve made an unpopular decision. Our representatives and senators are stuck, and so were the priests and elders. So back then, they just abstained. “We don’t know,” they said in verse 27, as slippery as anyone running for office.
Jesus knew if they didn’t believe John, they wouldn’t believe Him. As Charlie Daniels sang about a cowboy, “If you don’t like him, you won’t like me neither.” So Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” They won’t answer His question and He won’t answer theirs. It’s a stalemate. On Friday night, it would have been time for Jim Lehrer to ask a new question, but on Holy Monday it was time for a parable.
The presidential candidates told stories about themselves. McCain’s highlighted his experience. Obama talked about an immigrant father, highlighting his empathy. Jesus’ story was not about Himself. It was about those listening to Him, about us.
It’s a simple story. A man has a family business. One day he asks his oldest son to go to work for him. That son says “No,” but then later changes his mind and goes after all. In the meantime, because the first said “No,” the father asks his other son. That one says, “Sure Dad!” but then doesn’t show up. That’s it, the whole story, the whole parable.
In biblical studies it’s called a “juridical parable,” a story designed to judge a person out of his own mouth. In II Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan used this kind of story to judge King David for adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. Jesus used this parable to judge the Jewish leaders, asking in verse 31, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“We don’t know,” isn’t going to work this time. Anyone listening to this debate knew the answer. They were trapped. They had to say, “The first.” The first son, though he said “No,” with his mouth, said “yes” with his actions. The second’s “Yes,” didn’t mean diddly, because nothing backed it up. What was said didn’t matter as much as what was done.
You and I could distance ourselves from this story. Over the centuries, the Church made this parable an allegory about Jews and Gentiles. Jews are pictured in the son who says “Yes,” but then doesn’t do what his father wanted. Gentiles are represented by the son who first said, “No,” but then changed his mind and went to work. There are old copies of Matthew where scribes reversed the story, making the one who said “Yes,” but didn’t go, the first son. It fits the allegory better. First came Jews who believed but didn’t do what God wanted. Second came Gentiles who did not believe, but came to faith through Jesus. We could pat ourselves on the back that we’re in the second camp, the Gentile believers.
Yet this parable was not about Jews and Gentiles. It was about a spiritual division within Jewish society. The highest ranks of the Jews failed to believe in John and Jesus. In verses 31 and 32, Jesus says that even the lowest in society, the tax collectors and prostitutes, would be entering the kingdom of God ahead of them, because they didn’t believe. You and I might still feel pretty good. We believe John. We believe Jesus. All is well.
Yet as Christians today, we often turn our belief into just another way of saying “Yes,” without doing what God wants. We watch debates on television to know what the candidates think, what they believe, what they say about the issues. Yet we all know that what they think and say and even believe on camera doesn’t matter as much as what happens next year after one is elected. We may like or dislike what candidates say, but what really concerns us is what he or she will actually do. It’s the same for God and us.
Especially since the Reformation and the great reemphasis on grace, Christians have tended to separate believing from doing. We’re saved by grace through faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us, not by what we can do for ourselves. We’ve imagined that being a Christian is all about what we believe rather than about what we do. We’ve tried harder to believe the right things than to do the right things. This parable is about you and me.
The Bible gives no justification for separating believing and doing. The Old Testament, Jesus, Paul and other writers taught that if we truly believe, then we will do what God wants. It’s in our text from Ezekiel 18. Start out righteous, but then do evil, and God will judge you. Start out wicked, but then repent and do what’s right, and God will save you. Belief and action are connected. Belief without doing what you believe is not real belief. What’s said needs to be backed up by what’s done.
Jesus’ parable suggests that if it’s a choice between “promise or performance,” to borrow language from the legal world, God chooses performance. It doesn’t matter what you’ve promised to do, or even if you promised, if you perform what He asks. We would prefer a candidate who made no promises at all, but performed well, to one who promised everything we wanted but did not perform. God feels the same way.
This parable is for an age where everything is about image and appearance and getting the perfect sound bite for the six o’clock news. We’re aching for leaders who give us substance under the sound bite, who not only sound good, but do good.
It’s not just politics where we ache for promise to match performance. We ache for it in our selves. If we want to elect people who are good to their word, we need to be people who are good to their word. In the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we must let our “Yes” be “Yes” and our “No” be “No.” Performance and promise need to brought back together throughout our lives.
Lenders ache for borrowers who will perform on their promises to pay back a loan. Borrowers need lenders who will perform on a promise to reveal the truth about the loans they offer.
Employers ache for employees who will do the work they agreed to when they were hired. Employees need employers who will provide the compensation and health care and pensions they promised.
Husbands and wives ache for spouses who will keep vows they made on their wedding days. And, as in the parable, parents ache for grown children who will keep the commandment they say they believe, to honor father and mother. Children ache for parents who will do what they’ve promised. Part of my own life story is the memory of watching out the front window for my dad to arrive and take me swimming or to a movie or to a ball game like he promised. But more than once, he never showed up.
You can tell your own story of broken promises, failed performance, whether someone failed you or you failed another. Failed promises bring much of the pain in our lives. They’re causing the economic anguish in our country right now. We all ache for promises to be made good in performance. The parable of two sons shows that if we have to choose between promise and performance, we choose performance. We’re aching for it.
Yet we don’t have to choose. The father might be glad for the son who changed his mind and did what was asked, but how much better it might have been for both to have said “Yes” and then done what was said. It’s not really promise or performance. It’s not faith or works. It’s not talk or action. They go together. Promise and performance. Let’s consider with care the promises we make and then keep them. Let’s think through what we say we believe and then act on it. And yet we don’t.
You and I break our promises. Whichever presidential candidate is elected will break some, if not most, of his promises. Some of us will not be able to pay back what we owe. Some of us will renege on the most sincere and important promises we’ve made. We will fail each other and fail our Lord. Sometimes we won’t bother to make the promises, because we know we can’t keep them. Our lives might be the parable of a third son, one who both said “No” and did not do what his father asked.
Our lesson from Philippians 2 today reminds us there is a Son who kept His promises. Paul wrote about Jesus the Son of God, who humbled Himself in perfect obedience, even when it meant dying on a Cross. He said “Yes” and did what His Father wanted. When we fail in our promises, there is still the one Son who performed His Father’s will to perfection. If we are going to put promise and performance back together, it will only be in and through the one Son who did it successfully.
That’s why belief and obedience, faith and works, promise and performance are never separated in Scripture. You can’t really believe unless you obey. Yet you can’t really learn to obey unless you believe. It’s only with the help we receive in Jesus that you and I can begin to do God’s will, that we can perform on our promises. It’s only by belief in and submission to His Word and authority that we can learn to keep our word.
It’s goes back to the debate that began this passage. Will we or won’t we believe in and respect the authority of Jesus? It doesn’t matter how we’ve started out, whether we’re good churchgoers or whether we’re criminals. What matters is the way we look at Jesus and whether we accept His authority over us.
Many years ago I conducted two weddings in the space of a couple weeks. One was for a young woman whose parents were pillars in our church. Her father was on the church council. Her fiancé was also a Christian. Yet the rehearsal was a pastoral nightmare. They came late. The groom’s fraternity friends were rude and rowdy. They laughed and joked while I gave directions. They lounged in the pews and put their feet up. They did not care that they were in a church. They were people who supposedly had said “Yes” to Jesus, but everything they did said “No.”
A second couple had no connection to our church. They were not Christians, though they went through my pre-marital counseling and started attending worship. Our organist whispered to me one Sunday that the groom was in fact the most notorious bookie in town.
Yet that wedding party came to rehearsal on time. They carefully put out their cigarettes at the door. Most had not been inside a church since the last wedding they attended. But they sat quietly and listened carefully. They addressed me as “Pastor” or “Reverend” or “Father” (they weren’t quite sure which). They were awed by their surroundings. They seemed to feel the presence of God. They were people who seemed to have said “No” to Jesus but everything they did that evening said, “Yes.” And I felt that Jesus got more honor from that bunch of sinners than He did from the sons and daughters of the church.
I never saw the first couple in church again. But the bookie and his wife kept coming. What Jesus said in verses 31 and 32 was true. Sinners came into the kingdom of heaven ahead of supposedly righteous people. They learned a bit of what it means to accept the authority of Jesus, to perform on the promises they made. It’s the lesson Jesus asks us all to learn. It doesn’t matter where we’re starting from, whether it’s abject failure or near perfection, what matters is that we trust Him, that we believe in and accept His authority. Then He will help us perform our promises. Then we will do what we say. We will do what He says.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj