Rev. Dr. Les Martin
For I’ve resolved to know nothing among you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified. In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. We have a parable today. It seems simple and it seems disturbing. But to begin with, it’s helpful to always place it in its context. Depending on Mark or Matthew, it’s one of the teachings on that day in Jerusalem after Palm Sunday or those days in Jerusalem after Palm Sunday. That part is perhaps irrelevant. What is relevant is that Jesus is in the temple and there are no holds barred.
The series of teachings that we’ve been working through, it helps to hear them in that context because the mask is off. Jesus is being deliberately provocative. He’s being abundantly clear about the state of Israel, and He’ll get killed for it. Let’s enter into this provocative parable. You heard it. It’s simple. It’s a story of two sons who are asked to perform a task. The first one says, “I won’t do that,” and later feels bad about it and does. The second one says, “Oh yes, father, I will do that,” but doesn’t.
Now, the placement in Matthew, what Jesus is trying to accomplish here makes abundantly clear what he makes clear right after the parable, and that is that he’s not so much telling the story about two sons as he’s telling the story about two groups, one group that is indicated by the second son. Bear with me, I’m going to flip them. The second son is demonstrative of the group that are the Jews, the chosen people of God. Jesus is quite clearly labeling them as the people who say to the Lord, “Yes, Lord, I will,” and then don’t. There’s the other group, the unclean, the gentiles, the Jews, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the people I like to lovingly gather in the term the leftover people because no one really likes leftovers. And the leftover people are the ones who when they are asked to do something by the Lord say, “No.” But in this parable they think better of it and do it anyway.
Now, on the surface there seems to be much to commend the people that Jesus is talking to, the Jews. He’s standing in the temple. Oh, it’s not quite as great as the first temple, but it’s pretty magnificent. He’s standing on a mount, not just of stone, but of ritual, of sacrifice, of observance, of tradition, of learning. These are the people who form one half of the cultural inheritance of the west. Not too shabby. On the surface, there seems much to commend them. But when we leap deeper, there is a problem, a problem that elsewhere causes Jesus to refer to these people as whitewashed graves like our cemeteries, all shiny and full of green grass and flowers on the surface, just don’t go down too far.
And the problem can be seen in primarily three areas of what the Jewish identity at this point rests on. First of all, it rests on ancestry. Jesus summarizes how the Jews think. At one point in Matthew. He says, “Don’t say we have Abraham as our father,” because that’s precisely what the Jews did. Lineage, lineage, standing on the promises, not so much of Christ our Savior, but of Abraham, our father. We are the right people.
The Jews also stood on the correct observance of the law, both the law of God and the manmade laws they made to protect that law. We see this in Luke 18 with the story Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Again, Jesus uses it in a subversive way, but never forget that the Pharisee is making good points from a Jewish perspective. Lord, and I thank you that I’m not like this guy. I fast, I donate, I pray. My prayer shawl is correct, my tassels are long enough. I’m truly grateful that I’m not like him.
Jewish identity, trust, and certainty also at this point is resting on what we could call the second temple Judaism version of the Prosperity Gospel, which is to say that if someone has a blessing, it’s because they and their ancestors have done well. Clean living means good results. And if someone is suffering, it means that they or their ancestors have done poorly, hence the story that the disciples ask in John 9:2, “Lord, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Obviously, someone did something wrong. The confusion that the disciples have in Matthew 19 when Jesus says, “How hard is it for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?” To the Jewish mindset, a blind man has either messed up or his daddy has. To the Jewish mindset of this time, the very fact that a man is wealthy is evidence that he will enter the kingdom of heaven.
And so this is the kind of nexus of Jewish thought underneath the beautiful temple that the God-given rituals, the meticulous observance of the law that causes Jesus to question whether they’re anything more than whitewashed graves. You see, it wasn’t so much about their faith at this point, it was about whose they were and what they’ve always been doing. The best example I can give you is this. If I wear an orange shirt on Saturday, you can assume something about the quality of my convictions and my loyalties. But I may just be wearing an orange shirt. That’s the problem.
Then there’s the other son, the other people, the people I have lovingly called the leftover people. On the surface, there seems much to condemn them. The two examples Jesus uses today are tax collectors. Bad enough that they work for the oppressive Roman government, but they even take bribes generally. They are considered the worst kind of people, not just unclean but unscrupulous. Imagine what it would be to be a Ukrainian and have to deal with a fellow Ukrainian citizen who is taking taxes for Russia at this point. Doesn’t seem much to commend in that.
And then prostitutes. Again, we’re a multi-generational service, so I won’t say much about that, and I don’t think I have to. Culturally, religiously, even in our popular narratives, pretty woman aside, the prostitute is not considered a fine, upstanding member of society. Add to the leftover people, the pagans, the gentiles, the ones who do abominable acts in the name of false gods and you give an idea about the leftover people. They’re doing bad things. And if Romans is right in chapter one, it’s because they’ve got bad brains and bad hearts and they’re focused on the wrong things. God once upon a time said, “I want you to do this,’ and they said, “No.” On the surface there doesn’t seem much to commend them. In fact, there seems much to condemn them for.
But just like underneath the apparent righteousness of the Jews, there is another truth, so it is that underneath the apparent naughtiness, wickedness, sinfulness of the leftover people, there’s another truth, one that here and elsewhere Jesus seems to have a begrudging respect for. Oh, don’t get me wrong; they’re sinners. They’re living outside God’s law. They’re worshiping a lie, but man, they’ve got hustle.
When I was privileged to work with the residents at the Knox Area Rescue Ministry, I found something out that I’d also found out during periods of my life when I lived on the margins, and that is that someone who has hustle is a remarkable person. And when you’re living on the margins, you better have hustle, or you won’t live. See, one of the great things about the homeless that you can learn is this. The ones who are really good at it… I know that sounds weird, but bear with me. The ones who are really good at being homeless who have figured out how to make it work for them, man, they hustle. They may hustle me, tell me the story I need to hear to part for a dollar or two out of my wallet. They may hustle for drugs, they may hustle for alcohol, they may hustle for bad things, but the fact of the matter is very little stops them in their pursuit of those things in a system that is stacked against them. They’ve got hustle. And one of the most gratifying things to see again and again was when someone was able to address the pains in their life, address the addictions, the problems and get a chance at the job or come to know Jesus. Man, they went at that with the same hustle. They went at it with the same energy.
I think this is what Jesus is getting at in that parable that just confuses me to no end. It’s in Luke 16, 1 through 13. I know that so often we are AWB, Anglicans without Bibles, so I’ll just tell you the story. Luke 16, 1 to 13 is that weird parable about the clever steward or the unjust steward. Do you remember this story? Jesus is telling the story about a guy who, he’s been ripping off his boss. He’s been ripping off the man whose property he manages. And he knows that the owner is onto him, and he says, “Well, what will I do now?” He says, “I know what I’ll do.” And he goes to the people who owe his boss. And he says, “How much do you owe him?” He says, “Well, I owe him $100. He says, make it $80.” Another guy says, “Well, I owe him $50.” He says, “$25 for you.”
This is not the kind of story we want to teach in Sunday school. And what’s worse about it, by the end of it, what does Jesus do? He says, “This guy made friends for himself.” And not only does Jesus seem to praise him, he has the owner in the story say, “Why, you’ve got hustle. What an enterprising young man you are.” And then Jesus says this. He says this in verse eight. Let me read it to you precisely because it’s really important. In verse eight, He says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their contemporaries than are the people of light.”
And I always wondered, why would Jesus even put this story in the Bible? Tell Matthew to cut it out. It’s not something we want to teach our kids unless it’s exactly what excites Jesus about the leftover people. All the leftover people, they make bad choices, given. Oh, the leftover people, they worship false gods, maybe just themselves, given, oh, the leftover people, they’re tax collectors and prostitutes, given. But man can they hustle.
What we really have here is fascinating if we now think of the story of the two sons in a different light. We’ve got people who stand on proper worship, proper doctrine, proper tradition, proper ancestry, but they’re complacent. Yes, Lord, I will do what you ask me one day, begrudgingly, eventually, maybe. Or that was in my youth. Yeah, I was real fired up in my youth, but look at me now. Complacency.
And then you’ve got the other group who also have their problem. They’re a mess. They are bound for damnation because of bad choices. Please don’t forget that part. But what do they have? Hustle. They’ve got a desire to make things better. They’re the people who, when faced with the prospect of a godly life, praised with a prospect of responsibility and obedience and discipleship, say, “Nah.” But later, just maybe when the world has beat them up and they have no hope left, they’re like the shrewd manager, and they say, “Maybe I’ll try this, Jesus.” And they go after it with hustle. That’s the parable.
Now, because I live in the modern world and thus am thoroughly self-centered, I don’t want to leave it there, I have to ask, well, which one am I? Which am I? Am I complacent, relying on my years of faith, my ordination, my titles? We don’t use them so much here. Mama Paul will tell you in Nigeria I am the venerable Dr. Leslie Martin, the cannon theologian of the Diocese. Do I think that matters? Am I relying on that? Am I relying on my habits where I get up in the morning and just open my prayer book? Not really because Les is so holy, but because he’s been doing it since he was 19. Am I drifting? Am I saying, “Look at what I’ve accomplished. Look at my resume. Look at all the things I’ve done. And I am, I’m good enough.” Or is Les a hustler?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed right now, this economy is a little hard. I came back from Nigeria not expecting to have the responsibilities and the financial implications I do, and so there’s a sense as I juggle three jobs and worry a lot that I’m looking for the quick fix. The temptation is always there to color outside the lines. And let me be clear about that. There’s a Christian way to color outside the lines too. I’m not saying we have to go into sin, but I could think about this sermon more in light of the honorarium I will receive than in light of the gospel. Anxiety, fear that can cause me to behave in a sub-Christian way as I grasp to try and get my needs met.
Am I complacent? Am I a hustler? Maybe you’re one or the other. You certainly know one or the other out there in the world. Truth is I think I’m both. Maybe you are too. Because I am complacent. I can be complacent in my stewardship of the gifts God has given me. I can be complacent when I look at my wife and son, seeing them as burdens and not gifts. I can be complacent in my other relationships. I can be complacent in my duties as a priest as in my duties to you. I can be complacent toward God’s gifts to me. Yeah, I’m saved, but the dark side of assurance is complacency. I’m a hustler.
Like the parable, I say, “I will not,” to God’s will far too often. I’m always looking to get what I need first. Did I mention that it’s a hectic time for me? Have you noticed the economy? It’s like, well, let me get this done. Oh, and he needs his diaper changed. And let me do this and let me do that and then I’ll pray. Problem is then never comes. Always to looking for me, myself, and I, and then God and my neighbor is myself. In other words, there’s a kind of life that is so anxiety driven that the life of faith and discipleship becomes a luxury that I’ll get to another day. I don’t have the ease and the peace of mind to pray.
On the one side, I’m complacent, I’m saved, I’m established. I have nothing to worry about. On the other side, there’s so much to worry about, it doesn’t really matter what God says. I got to hustle. Do you see? It’s two minds, but they’re actually two sides of the same coin, and the center of that coin is me.
Romans 7 describes it well, Paul cries out, “I know the good I’m supposed to do, and that’s not what I do. And I know the things I don’t want to do and I really don’t want to do them, but that’s exactly what I do, and there is no health within me.” Complacent, hustler; that’s up here. I’m of two minds, which means I need a brain transplant. The good news is that that’s what Paul is talking about just today, that there is a solution that transcends saying, “Yes, Lord, I’ll do it, but I already did it.” Or saying, “No, Lord, I don’t want that. I got to take care of me.” There’s a solution, and it’s a different mind, a different mindset. It’s the mind of Christ, the mind of Christ.
I want to read this again. Bear with me. But it’s important that we hear these same words. I’m actually going to even go a little further to verse 15 in the context of what I’ve been saying about the parable. “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy and be all of the same mind, having the same love, being united in spirit and having one purpose. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, instead of hustling, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had.”
See, the problem with the both sons is they’re both messed up. This is not a simple story of who’s good and who’s bad because the ones who look so upstanding, well, not really, they’re corrupt on the inside. And the ones who are so corrupt on the outside, truly corrupt, well, they at least still have the vigor of life. Remember what I said? The Pharisees were like tombs; dead. The sinners in the parable, well, they’re at least motivated, so both are half right, half wrong. And the solution is the mind of Christ, the mind of Christ, which is suffering and service for others.
People often ask me, how does discipleship work? It’s just that; having the mind of Christ, understanding who He was, what He did, letting that churn in us. It’s not some 12-step program or six week Bible study, it’s dwelling on who He is, what He did, and letting that push out the complacency, letting that push out the anxiety and the hustling, and letting the peace of Christ become my mind.
The reality is you heard it in there. We have to walk out our salvation in awe and reverence. So many translations say fear and trembling. I don’t much like that because those words these days in the modern world express, no, it’s awe and reverence. When we think of who He is and what He’s done, when we have awe, when we say wow, and when we reverently approach that truth, well, it’s hard to be complacent. It’s also hard to live a life that’s not in conformity with the kind of life we’re supposed to live, the mind of Christ transplanted into us by faithfully, not complacently, faithfully dwelling on the ritual, the words and the truths, by hustling not for the things of this world that will not satisfy, but hustling for the sake of others who need what we have been given.
See, the bad news is this. Whatever temptation you fall into, complacency in faith and discipleship is sin. It just is. The bad news is hustling in a life of self-centered rebellion against God is sin. It just is the good news in Christ that we may miss in this parable though is, see, it’s not where we start out that matters. That’s why tax collectors and prostitutes might just go in ahead of the venerable, Dr. Les Martin. It’s not where we start out that matters, it’s where we end up. And if we end up in the mind of Christ, then we all end up in the kingdom. First or last, doesn’t matter so much, we get in. The key is the mind of Christ, of letting Him be the sole focus of our attention, our love, and our activity. Don’t rely on who you used to be in Christ, don’t hustle for things that cannot satisfy, let Him be your all in all.