Repentence: tuned to the Father

Matthew 21:23-32

I’ll just briefly point you back to a couple of weeks ago and remind you that it is all about the relationship.  Today a short, simple parable with immediate impact.  Neither son acts as he initially indicates.  In the end, one of the sons goes and works in the vineyard.

But Jesus’ words and actions on either side of this parable demonstrate that this is not a simple call to “do the right thing”.  This is a lesson about evaluation and “change”.  Jesus has finally reached Jerusalem—what Jesus has been heading towards and working towards is about to happen.  After his celebrated procession into the city he has gone to the Temple, upsetting the courtyard markets, and calling for a focus on worship of the Father.  This is followed by his judgment and curse of the fig tree which bore no fruit.  And then, he is challenged by the chief priests and the elders:  “What right do you have?  Who gave you the authority?”  So Jesus counters with his question, “Where did John get the authority to baptize?  To whom is John being obedient when he baptizes?”

It is important to remember John’s preaching and John’s baptism.  They were a baptism of ‘repentance’ or, as the original Greek word put it, a ‘change of mind’.  There are a couple of different Greek words used in this context, but both can bear either the simple sense of “changing one’s mind” or the theological sense of “repentance”.

So the parable is about more than changing one’s mind and doing the opposite, it is about repentance.  And what comes through very clearly in this simple parable is that it is about changing one’s mind from one’s self, and focussing on the will of the Father.  Repentance is about wholly tuning oneself to the will of the Father.  Repentance is about turning from one’s own decision, direction, plan, intention, or desire and following the will of the Father.

When Jesus scolds the traders in the Temple, or curses the fig tree and then, on the other hand, recognizes and validates the tax collectors and the prostitutes he is not capriciously condemning Israel’s carefully developed culture and traditions around Temple worship, and then approving financial cheating and sexual immorality.  He is, in fact, directing the thoughts of his disciples and others away from concentration on the ‘deed’, on the ‘doing’, and raising the question, “Are you tuned in to the will of the Father?;  past the traditions (We’ve always done it this way!) and past the commandments (either achieve or failed), to the plan and purposes and commitment and compassion of the Father?”

The call of God to repentance is not, as we often slip into thinking, a call to think about your sins and focus on what you can do or can’t do.  The call to repentance, to change your mind, your focus, your direction is a call by God who says, “Turn to me!”

Go back to this parable.  Put yourself in the situation—a rather easy one to do because we have all had the experience described in some fashion:  middle of the school holidays, perhaps; lounging about (as children will often do); dad says to go out and do something that would be helpful to him; and you or I immediately start to think, “Is this what I want to do?  Do I feel like it?” 

And as soon as you or I start to think that way we have divorced the ‘task’ from the ‘father’ and have related it to ‘ourselves’.  It has become about ‘me’ and what ‘I’ want.  And whether I say ‘yes’ and then do it, or don’t…or say ‘no’ and don’t do it, or do…it is about me and what I want…until—as happens in this story—something draws me back to actually focussing on the father and something leads me to think about the father and what I want in terms of my feelings, my relationship with the father…for the father!...and then a change has taken place.  It’s about the father; it’s about being in tune with the father.  Our Father.

Do you know what I mean?  Do you understand what I mean about that ‘shift’?

Jesus is saying to the people of Israel, “Can you focus again on your God?”

Now you have to be aware that the people of Israel were, in fact, trying to deal with the reality of their covenant relationship with God in the middle of a long period of national and religious difficulty.  Their kingdom was in ruins; they were a nation occupied by the Romans; their beliefs and worship and traditions and culture were constantly under threat from Roman polytheism, and political pressures, and secular rationalism, and just the growing despair of things not appearing to go according to the plan they think God had promised them….

And, at the time of Jesus’ ministry, there were three popular public responses to this general faith-spiritual-political-social malaise:  some said they should take up arms and fight their way out of it!; some said they should just give in and try not to cause more damage…; and some said they should turn to the Law, get the commandments right, get the formula right, get it right, do it right, be right!

Into this comes Jesus.  And Jesus does two things in his ministry:  he challenges the thinking of those who think that they can think their way out of this situation and then do more and do more right until they get it right and then God will love them again…Jesus does that…and then, at the same time, he heals the hurting, and feeds the hungry, and rescues the floundering, and embraces the outcasts, and forgives the guilty and lets them off the hook.

Or, in other words, he tells them and shows them:  It is the Father’s will to claim you as his children, to love you, and to gather you into his arms…all of you.  “Turn away from your sin.  And, while you’re at it, turn away from your self-righteousness.  Turn to me.”  The call to repentance is much more than, and quite different from, a call to “change your behaviour”.  It is a call to turn to the mind, to the will, to the heart, to the arms of the Father.

I was recently reminded of a concrete “clue” in something we say that might help you to remember this.  It was many years ago that I learned it, and I have shared it with others from time to time, but sometimes I forget it and don’t always apply it consistently in my own life, let alone teach it in my ministry.  But if I share it with you  it may just niggle away at you in a positive way in the future.

Rather than confess your sins to God, try and get in the habit of confessing your sin .  When you confess “sins”—plural—your mind tends to identify the things you’ve done wrong, the mistakes, the hurts, the failures.  But when you say to God “Forgive my sin” you recognize that it is not just the individual sins, but the bigger problem—the attitude, the disobedience, the selfishness, the apathy, the ignorance—it is the whole problem, the everything that gets between you and God, that keeps your life out of step or out of rhythm with the will of God.  Sin is a ‘state of being’ as much as it is ‘an act of disobedience’.  Forgive me my sin.  Turn me from my sin.  Turn me away from my own desires and plan and turn me to you, loving Father.  Make me in tune with you and your will, completely, in everything—not just in my deeds, but in my trust, in my confidence, in my hope, in my peace, in my joy.

There is a parallel parable to this one today.  Much longer.  Much more dramatic.  But very similar.  It is the parable in Luke’s Gospel of the prodigal son.  In a similar way to this parable, at some point the Spirit leads the prodigal son to recognize that in his Father’s house there is compassion and blessing and a good plan(!) whereas in his own selfishness he had led himself into the muck.  At some point the son looks beyond himself and back to the will of the Father, the way the Father wants things to be; the way the Father makes things to be—running to embrace him, welcome him, feed him, celebrate him, love him.

Which son did the will of his father?  We are reminded again today in the epistle reading of The Son, who humbled himself and became obedient to the will of the Father; and from that obedience graciously raised up all the fallen sons and daughters of all time.

“Turn to me!” our God says.  Repentance.  A change of mind.  A change and re-focus back to the compassionate will of the Father.

This parable is not a test.  It’s an invitation….

Amen.