A father and his two sons: I wonder what their names were? Of course, we’ll never know. There are any number of families (you can name them) where two boys grow up alongside each other: I myself have an older brother (and two sisters). What’s remarkable to me now (as a father myself) is just how different each of my children are. This story – it could be about your family, it could be about mine.
But again, I wonder. Might we give these boys names? There’s another parable (in Luke’s Gospel) about a father and his two sons: The parable of the prodigal son (who has an older brother) – neither of them named though. It seems to have similar message – or at least the application is the same: people who some thought had relinquished their right to be part of God’s covenant community (‘tax collectors and sinners’ in the shorthand of the day) were finding a welcome in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, as others stood on the side-lines and grumbled…and found themselves excluded from the Kingdom.
A father and two sons. Where else might we find these characters in scripture? Bear with me, for this might be a flight of fancy, a bit of a stretch. But might we name these boys Esau and Jacob. A particular generation of people only know these names because of that famous comedy sketch from ‘Beyond the fringe’ in the 1960s; ‘Esau was an hairy man, Jacob a smooth man.’ They were twins back in the Old Testament. Esau committed the unforgiveable sin by giving up his inheritance (with the help of some pretty devious dealing from his younger brother): he shamed the family, most especially his father. Jacob the younger twin went on to know God’s blessing as Esau simply faded into obscurity. It’s not that God didn’t bless the older boy, more that Jacob became the one through whom God would bless the world.
And this is where it gets interesting: Jacob changed his name – or rather God changed it for him. Jacob became ‘Israel’. Esau, who had so easily given up his birthright is left stuck in the pages of the book of Genesis whilst Israel’s story runs and runs because God wants to fulfil His purposes through this Chosen people.
So I wonder what the chief priests and elders of the people heard as Jesus spoke of the father and his two sons? I wonder how they heard the rebuke Jesus gave them? Did they have this foundational national story at the back of their minds as Jesus spoke of a son who initially rejected his father’s authority but then ‘came good’? …and was there any doubt in their minds that Jesus regarded them as being the son who promised much but delivered little? Is a new Israel being created…or are the boys changing roles?
As Jesus was followed by the crowds because he spoke of the welcome God gave to those society regarded as being beyond the pale, what seemed to be happening was the creation of a new community that supplanted the old. A community that was marked by obedience (yes), but obedience less to a set of rules and regulations, more to a direction of living: Loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and loving your neighbour as yourself.’
Of all people in Israel the chief priests and the elders ‘kept the Jewish religious law’, were obedient to what they thought God wanted of them, ‘did the will of the Father.’ Jesus makes it clear that he thinks they are the law breakers, the son who talks the talk but who disappoints his father. ‘How dare he say this?… to us, of all people. We are the children of Israel, God’s blessed ones.’
Jesus’ challenge undercuts their identity. Jesus seems to suggest that God is choosing another people for His purposes. No wonder these elders react violently.
As ever our parable asks: ‘who are you in this story?’ Jesus makes it abundantly clear to his opponents that the person who has made wrong choices and offended our Heavenly Father by ignoring his wishes is a child of the Kingdom when they realise their mistake and return to be obedient to God’s purposes. There’s a way back…God does not slam the door on us.
What Jesus also makes clear is that we cannot be God’s people in name only: what we do must reflect our faith and the character of God, actions speak louder than words so what task might God call you to this week….and are you up for completing it?
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