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Preaching the Parables
Series IV, Cycle A
So, what do you think?

When Jesus told the parable about the father with two sons to its original audience, they were already squirming after his earlier question to them about John the Baptist. He didn't say to them, "Here's an easy answer." He said, "Here's a hard question!" A hard question in the form of a simple story -- a parable. "What do you think?"

So, what do you think? I don't mean them. I mean you.

Parables aren't little Bible stories that provide pious answers to life's problems. They're think-pieces. They're meant to make you think. Every time Jesus told a parable, it was as though he nailed on the wall in front of his hearers one of those signs that used to hang on the walls at IBM. THINK!

You can buy those original signs on eBay -- for $25 and up. According to IBM's internet archives:

The "THINK" motto was developed by Thomas J. Watson Sr. three years before he joined the forerunner of today's IBM in 1914. By the early 1930s, THINK began to take precedence over other slogans in IBM, and it appeared on signs ... in IBM plants and offices, and in company publications, calendars, and photographs all over the world.1

(I assume the sign was the origin of IBM's "Think Pad" line of computers.) But before Tom Watson said it with one word, Jesus said it with parables. THINK! And not just about what his stories must have meant to those to whom Jesus told them. Think also about what his stories still mean to those of us who hear them now.

The Bible is great literature. Literary analysis and criticism is helpful. What Jesus was saying to his immediate listeners is always important for us to understand, so we don't misunderstand. But the Bible is also God's word to you and to me. It is important to understand what God is saying to us.

We underline that when we install elders, deacons, and pastors to office in the Presbyterian church. We ask those who would lead to affirm what they believe. We do that by asking questions. Among the questions is this one, "Do you accept the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus in the church universal, and God's word to you?"2 Not, "God's word to those that heard it spoken," but, "God's word to you to whom God is speaking."

That doesn't mean, "Do you hold to a particular view of biblical inerrancy, or interpretation, or what somebody says is 'fundamental' to the faith?" as some would wish it. It does mean, "Do you believe that, through holy scripture, God speaks to you?" That what God has to say is not embalmed in a book, but is very much alive in the life of his people, in your life, and in mine?

If the answer is, "Yes," then the question is this, "When God speaks to you, what do you think?" That was Jesus' question to "the chief priests and elders of the people [who] came to him as he was teaching" (Matthew 21:23), to ask him a question. He answered their question with his own question that was intended to make them think. Really, to find within themselves the truth they already knew.

Be careful, though. He didn't say, "Find your own truth." That's something for another sermon another day. It wasn't what would you like to think. He said, "What do you think?" What do you already know about yourself that you would rather not think about right now?

Do you ever wonder what got Jesus killed? He had a propensity for asking the right question at the wrong time -- for making people think -- and then challenging their thinking in a way that made people mad. He made them think the truth about themselves. He often did that, as he did this time, with a parable. A little story told to make you think. Not to be overanalyzed, but to be understood.

Some of the Jewish religious and political establishment of that day were opposed to Jesus and his teaching -- you might say, "to his way of thinking." On this particular occasion, instead of challenging his teaching, though, they challenged his authority to teach. It was a political ploy, pure and simple. Discredit his credentials, discredit his teaching, discredit him.

From time to time, in the news we hear of someone who has lost a prominent position, not because they were doing a bad job, but because it was discovered they had exaggerated or lied on their resumes. They really didn't go to that school, or earn that degree and the authority it confers. That day they were checking out Jesus' resume -- Jesus' credentials -- Jesus' authority -- in hopes he wouldn't check out. Then they could check him off their list of problems to be solved. "Show us your credentials, Jesus! Who authorized you to teach here?"

Jesus saw it coming. He knew where they were going. So he put the ball back in their court. Jesus played hardball, too. "I'll tell you what," he said, "you answer my question, then I'll answer yours." Apparently they bit. Jesus asked his question. He really just asked them their own question, but about his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus asked, "By whose authority did John baptize? Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" (Matthew 21:25). Were John's words God's words -- or just John's? Was God John's authority -- or not? What were John (the Baptist's) credentials? What do you think?

Well, one thing's for sure. They didn't think as well on their feet as Jesus. They could have walked away from that loaded question, but instead, they stood there worrying about how to answer. How they answered would affect their authority in their religious and political community.

Matthew lets us in on their quandary. They argued among themselves about what to say. "If we say [the authority of John the Baptist was] 'from heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' " (Matthew 21:25). And we don't want to answer that question!

On the other hand, "If we say [John's authority was] 'of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet" (Matthew 21:26), as one who speaks with authority from God.

It was politics as usual. We know what the crowd thinks. We know what the polls say. We know what we think. But we don't want to say what we think. There was a whole lot of thinking going on. But in the end politics, not thoughtfulness, prevailed. "We don't have an answer for you, Jesus." "Well," said Jesus, "then I don't have an answer for you!"

But, "What do you think?" (Matthew 21:28). "Tell me what you think of this story" (Matthew 21:28 The Message). It's just a story.

"A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, 'Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.' The son answered, 'I don't want to.' Later on he thought better of it and went. The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, 'Sure, glad to.' But he never went. Which of the two sons did what the father asked? They said, 'the first' " (Matthew 21:28-31 The Message).

What else could they say? What would you say? What's more important? What you say, or what you do? What do you think? I suspect that by this time they'd gotten the message and knew they'd been had. But just in case they hadn't, Jesus explained. He compared them in their religiosity, and in their response to John's call to repentance, and in their response to himself and his teachings, to the son who said he would do as the father asked, but then didn't do it. And then he compared "crooks" and "prostitutes" who, the scriptures say, heard both John and Jesus gladly, to the son who said he wouldn't do as his father asked, but then did.

Jesus was saying that his hearers believed the right things, and said the right things, but they didn't do the right things. John's call to repentance that Jesus said was heard by crooks and prostitutes, but not by the chief priests and elders, as well as Jesus' own teachings, was a word from God to do something -- not just to hear something. Not even just believe something, or say something, but do something about the way they lived their lives.

That's what John and Jesus both meant by "repent!" Go and do what the Father has said. And no matter how religious they were, no matter how political they were, said Jesus, they needed to do more than hear the Father's words; they needed to do something in response -- and if the words of the Bible are God's word to you and me, so do we!

As we ordain officers in the Presbyterian church, we say a lot of words. I went back and read all the words of "The Constitutional Questions to Officers" again this week in light of the parable. They're words about what elders and deacons and pastors (our "chief priests and elders of the people"), are called to do: "Trust, acknowledge, believe, accept, receive, and adopt, be instructed and led, lead, fulfill, be continually guided, be governed, abide, be a friend, follow, love, work, promise, serve, be faithful, watch over, provide, share, serve, teach, and direct."

Those are "doing words" as one of my long ago English teachers called them. We ordain and install elders and deacons and pastors in the church to do something. Our constitutional questions simply ask them whether they will do it. But, our constitution doesn't stop there. You were hoping! It asks then what the congregation will do. Whether you will accept those whom you call to positions of leadership; whether you will encourage them, respect them, and follow them. In other words, when they ask you to do something, will you do it? Or will you have more reasons than our constitution has questions for why you can't or won't.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with questions. Sometimes they lead to better answers. But only so long as our questions are seeking answers about what it is God's word calls us to do and how we can do it. What do you think? I know what I think. I think I'm going to close with another parable.

Jesus didn't tell this one. I don't know who did. It's about four Presbyterians. Some of you know them. Their names are "Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody."

According to the parable, there was an important job to be done at church. The parable doesn't say what. It could be teaching a class or serving a meal or stuffing envelopes or being on a committee or being involved in mission or serving on a board or giving more money for some special project or the operating budget. It could be remembering the church in your will. Many of us do those things generously.

But in the parable, it said, "Everybody was asked to help. Everybody was sure Somebody would. Somebody got mad because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it. But Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't. And in the end, Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done."

Think! What do you think? What's Jesus asking of you? Are you the first son or the second son?

The Bible doesn't tell us what they said to Jesus then. That's because the only important answer is what you say to Jesus now.


1. http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/attic2/attic 2_207.html.

2. The Constitution, Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II, Book of Order, 14.0207.09.
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