23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
What makes for a marriage? My father was once confronted by that question in an adult membership class. One of the women in the class had been faithful to her cohabitating boyfriend for over 25 years. At least two others in the class had been divorced and remarried. It was a typical cross-section of the folks who show up in these sorts of classes these days. My father was a little stymied by the question, he admitted to me. She had been far more faithful than many of the marriages over which he had presided. He would have been delighted to celebrate a 25th or 30th anniversary with this person. Was there something to celebrate? While an official marriage would have been better, my father had to admit that this woman and her boyfriend in fact were far more faithful to whatever promises they had made to one another than many of those who had been officially married. Did that make them married?
Jesus poses a question to his hostile and pious audience today in the form of a parable. A man with two sons. One says no to the father’s request but then goes out and does what the father asks. The other son says he will do it, but he never puts down the videogame controller to do what the father requested. Which of those sons did the father’s will? Of course, deeds speak louder than words. Jesus points out that the reprobates got John the Baptist right. They had not gone to synagogue every week or taken their bar-mitzvah vows seriously, but when God called them to repent, they did it. The churchly types who fought John’s ministry claimed to be faithful but did not repent at God’s command.
It is that same uncomfortable moment you have when you talk to a street person or some tattooed biker only to discover that they have been far more loving to neighbors than you have been for all your proper, church-going piety. We started this week with a prayer to be led to the truth. Jesus is leading all of us to the truth and sometimes it packs a punch. But having dislodged us from our pietistic perch, Jesus leans over us while we lie in the straw and filth on ground with a smile on his face. He reaches out his hand to pick us up anew, every time. The woman who was living with her boyfriend could get married and Jesus would smile on that. The prostitutes and tax collectors who came to John were forgiven and told to sin no more. Even self-righteous elder brothers who say the right thing but hypocritically do not do it, find a place in that long line of sinners for whom Jesus died and rose again. Jesus tells this story to those same people who rejected John and later that week killed Jesus himself because he still wants them to repent so they can be forgiven. He wants that for you too.