Today’s sermon continues our 10-part series on Jesus’ parables from Matthew’s gospel. Today our scripture is Matthew 21:23-32, the Parable of the Two Sons.
In this week’s sermon, I challenge us to consider how much we’re willing to trust in Jesus. Are there areas in our lives in which our words about Jesus fail to match our actions? Are we like the second son in the parable who says “yes” to the father—because, after all, talk is cheap—only to fail to do what his father wants?
This sermon has a particular focus on our church’s stewardship campaign, which kicks off this week. It can apply to any number of other areas of our lives.
Sermon Text: Matthew 21:23-32
The following is my original manuscript.
When I was a child, one important highlight of every summer was going to Six Flags over Georgia. Each year, it seemed, the park would debut some thrilling new ride—the scarier, the better; the faster, the better; the more death-defying, the better; the more vomit-inducing, the better. Never mind that you had to wait in line for, like, two hours in order to ride it!
You can imagine, then, how my friends and I felt in the late-’70s when Six Flags debuted the greatest roller-coaster of all, the Mind Bender. The Mind Bender, in case you’ve never been fortunate enough to ride it, is two minutes, 33 seconds of pure bliss. It features three loops. It was the first roller coaster we’d ever heard about that went upside down!
When we first heard about the Mind Bender, my friends and I were eagerly anticipating it. We all sounded so brave. “I’m not scared to ride the Mind Bender. Are you?” “No! I’m not scared. I can’t wait to ride it.” But we were scared. I know I was! After all, the ride had only a lap bar, hardly enough to hold you in your seat if you were suspended upside down.
I know this seems quaint now. I didn’t understand physics back then. I didn’t understand centrifugal force and how I was going so fast that it would be physically impossible to fall out.
But I did know one thing for sure: I’d rather risk death by falling out of an upside down roller coaster than face the humiliation of chickening out. I was going to ride the Mind Bender if it was literally the last thing I ever did! But I had to have faith. I had to trust that my parents wouldn’t put my life in jeopardy by letting me ride something that would kill me. I had to trust that Mom and Dad loved me at least that much! I had to trust that so long as I was taller than that cartoon character’s hand at the beginning of the line, I could safely ride the ride.
Trust! It’s still the hardest thing, isn’t it? Occasionally, God blesses me with a problem that I do not know how to solve on my own. I hate those kinds of problems, but it’s great to be humbled in this way. I talk about these challenges sometimes with friends in ministry. Recently, one of them said, “Well, you’re just going to have to pray about it and trust that God will work it all out.” And I’m like, “You’re going to make this about God again, huh? You mean I actually have to faith? I have to actually trust the Lord? Are you sure there isn’t some easier option? Isn’t there some other way to do it?” Trust!
But that trust thing is hard to do, let’s face it. Break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Trust! Lose your job? Trust! Problems in your marriage? Trust! Problems with your teenager? Trust! Problems with your health? Trust! Problems with your grades? Trust!
Today’s parable is often called the Parable of the Two Sons—not to be confused with that other, better known parable of the two sons. But this parable speaks to the issue of trust… Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover. This is on Monday of Passion Week. On Friday of this week, Jesus will be crucified. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. And on Palm Sunday, Jesus does a couple of very provocative things–things that greatly bother the powers that be. The “powers that be” are the chief priests and elders mentioned in verse 23. First, Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, amidst a cheering throng of onlookers, who worshiped him as Israel’s promised Messiah, who would free Israel from Roman occupation and establish God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth.
As if this action weren’t provocative enough, after his triumphal entry, Jesus went into the temple and drove out the money-changers—temporarily shutting down the whole sacrificial system—as if Jesus owned the place! Who did he think he was? God?
And when these chief priests and elders asked him “by whose authority” he did what he did, that was really a more polite way of asking, “Who do you think you are?” And Jesus answers in so many words, “If you only knew who I was, and believed in me, you would find heaven. As it is, society’s biggest sinners, outcasts, and losers—like tax collectors and prostitutes—are getting there ahead of you.”
The sad thing is that whatever these chief priests and elders thought they might lose because of Jesus would have been more than made up for by what they would gain —if only they could trust in him.
But let’s not be too hard on the chief priests and elders. Trust is hard, as we’ve already discussed. The question on the hearts of the chief priests was, “Who do you think you are?” But when you reflect on your own life, and your own faith, and your own level of trust in Jesus, maybe the better question is… Who do you think Jesus is? Who do I think Jesus is? And do our lives reflect our answer to that question?
There’s never been a better time to ask these questions than on this first Sunday of our month-long emphasis on stewardship.
Stewardship is no one’s favorite topic. Yet when it comes to being a Christian, there are few topics that get to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. I should explain that stewardship is a churchy word that usually translates as “giving money to church.” But stewardship should mean so much more than that.
You know those potentially awkward and uncomfortable moments when you pass a panhandler on the street? They ask for money, and they give you some hard-luck story about why they need it. And you seriously doubt they’re telling the truth. And they’re probably not. And you’re reluctant to give them anything because why? It might be because you’re concerned about their welfare, and giving them money to spend on booze or drugs is a bad idea. But there’s often another impulse in play here: You don’t want to be taken advantage of. Right? I know I don’t.
But I like what Richard Foster wrote in one of his books about this very issue. He said, “No one should be able to take advantage of us Christians because we have no advantage to be taken.” In other words, what we have, including our money, belongs to God, not us. No one can take advantage of something that isn’t really ours to begin with. It’s true we’ve been given the responsibility by God to manage these resources, but stewardship means that all the stuff we have, including our money, doesn’t really belong to us.
When we give some of that money to support our church, we’re not losing anything. Why? Because it’s not ours to lose. Moreover, we have to trust—there’s that word again—that since the money came from God to begin with, surely there must be more where that came from. We recognize this truth each week when we pray the Lord’s prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” God is the source of everything we need to live. Not us.
And maybe we resist this idea. Maybe we’ll say, “Nobody handed me anything. I’ve worked for everything that I have! I worked hard in high school and college to get a good job. And I work 60 hours a week to put food on the table and provide for my family.” And maybe all that’s true. But who gave you life? Who gave you this amazing body, these hands and feet, which are capable of doing work? Who gave you this amazing brain, by which you can think and solve problems? Who blessed you with parents and teachers and role models? Who gave us the raw materials that we can convert into useful things like iPhones, automobiles, and golf clubs. I could go on, but I think you get the point. We come into this world owing a very large debt of gratitude to Someone, and with each passing day, as we faithfully receive our daily bread–and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gone a day without it–that debt just grows and grows and grows.
What a gift we’ve been given! What a gift! What gifts we continue to receive! Every day and every hour and every moment is a gift! We can’t pay God back. We don’t have to. But for most members of this church, we can afford to pay more!
Let me put my cards on the table. When Lisa and I were in our twenties, we were “dinks”—dual incomes, no kids. You know, back when life was great! Just kidding! And we didn’t give enough to God—we gave a tip, not a tithe. Before I started seminary and became a pastor, we felt convicted that that needed to change. And so Lisa and I started tithing—which meant we gave 10 percent of our income to church. That is the biblical standard of giving, and I want each of you to think about doing it.
If it helps, consider that Lisa and I started tithing when it was least convenient, financially, to do so. I quit my job. We sold our house. I took a drastic pay cut in my salary—and I was the primary breadwinner. I had to afford to make ends meet as a full-time student at an expensive seminary and a part-time pastor. This was a good lesson in trust for me. Because I discovered that somehow we could survive. And we tithe to this day.
But you be your own judge: whether you feel like you can give 10 percent this year or not, answer this question: Am I being faithful in my giving? I’m not mostly talking about being faithful to the church or faithful to the promise you made when you joined the church to support it with your financial gifts. I’m talking about being faithful to God: “Will I trust God enough to do the thing that I know, in my heart of hearts, God wants me to do?”
Because we face a clear choice: We can be more like the first son in the parable or more like the second. Maybe we sense that God is calling us right now to be more faithful to him in the area of financial giving. Maybe he’s called us to be more faithful in the past, and, like the first son, we’ve said no. Maybe even now we feel great resistance to the prospect of giving more money. But maybe, in spite of this resistance, we find the courage to do it anyway—to put faith into practice in the most practical, tangible, down-to-earth way imaginable; to speak through our actions what we say we believe with our hearts; to trust that somehow God will make it work out; to trust that even if we’re hanging upside, and we’re afraid, we will not fall out!
Or, like the second son, maybe we just know the right words to say, but someone looking at our lives would ask us, “You don’t really believe this stuff, do you?” “Jesus is Lord,” we say. “Except he’s not Lord of my wallet or my purse or my checking account. I don’t really trust him enough to let him have that, too.” But if he’s not Lord of this most practical, tangible, down-to-earth part of our lives, what is he really Lord of? If I’m not trusting him with my money, what am I really trusting him with? If I get to pick and choose what part of my life Jesus is Lord of, can I really say he’s Lord of any of it?
Brothers and sisters, I’m stepping on my own toes, too. I know that what I’m saying doesn’t only apply to money. There are likely plenty of areas in all of our lives in which our words don’t match our actions. Areas in which we say “no” to the Father, not necessarily with our words–because talk is cheap–but with our actions. Areas in which our faith is still mostly just talk.
May Jesus Christ, through the power of his Spirit, make us like the first son. May he give us the power to change. May he give us the power to trust that he’ll take care of us and that we’ll be O.K.