Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Oh how I love this gospel! – because I have two children – two teenaged children – and I am one of two children. My family will tell you that I trot out this gospel a lot – pretty much every time one of my children says, “I will Mom!” and then fails to do what they were asked. “Remember the parable of the two sons?, I will ask. Which one of those was the good child?” “The one who did what the father said,” either one or the other inevitably replies, complete with an accompanying eye roll.
But after reading the parable again myself, I started thinking that maybe doing this to them is not only unfair, but overly simplistic. Because what I have noticed is that almost every time I read this story – or quote it to my children – I am thinking of a different person. The same is true when I apply it to my sister and myself. When we were teenagers, it was often my sister, who is quiet and hates conflict, who would say, “Yes, I’ll do it,” and then manage to be somewhere else when the job needed doing. Nowadays, it is me who sometimes agrees to things and then immediately tries to get out of them. The truth is that we’re all sometimes the “good” child and sometimes the not-so-obedient child.
That is actually great news – because it means we are not slaves to our innate dispositions. The age-old “nature versus nurture” debate has still not been settled despite recent innovations in genetic testing and brain science, but our scriptures for today certainly seem to have something to say on the matter. In our Hebrew bible reading, the prophet Ezekiel confronts his people about doing what Dr. Phil might call “playing the blame game.” Scholars tell us that Ezekiel’s congregation lived in exile following the ouster of the Israelites by the Babylonians. They believed that these reduced circumstances were the result of God’s judgment – and they complained to Ezekiel that it was unfair of God to exile them for what their parents had done – for the sins of their fathers. But God, speaking through Ezekiel, told them that they were not being judged for inherited sins. God told them that they were judged for their own choices.
That’s a big deal, because such choices determine the difference not only between physical life and death, but the state of our eternal spiritual life, something Paul frequently advised his congregations about. Writing to the Philippians from prison, his letter is hopeful, expressing confidence in the community that he loves, which has always listened to him. He knows that “God is at work” in them, especially when they properly imitate the way of Jesus and sacrifice for one another. The Greek word, “kenosis” means “to empty” and the adjective “kenotic,” used to describe Jesus, denotes one who empties himself for another. Paul suggests that in order to find the full joy of spiritual fellowship (“koinonia” in Greek), the Philippians also need to be willing to empty themselves for one another, to “look not to [their] own interests, but to the interests of others.”
That is a tall order for ordinary human beings – because we may not be liable for our familial predispositions, but there is such a thing as human nature. And even though scripture tells us that we need not be defined by it, the bible does not say that we will not make mistakes because of it. The questions we need to ask are what we can do to avoid the most serious of these errors – and what to do when they happen anyway.
Today’s psalm is the story of an individual who is struggling with his own worries and impulses. Although this psalm has been attributed to David, scholars believe it is more likely that it was written in the post-exhilic period – in other words, by the descendants of the very same Israelites who complained about being punished for the sins of their fathers. Life was confusing for these returnees, who had to adjust to living with people that they didn’t know or understand. In this chaotic situation the psalmist asked for God’s help – just as we ask God to be present to us in our confusion, our anxiety, and our fear.
He also asked God to forgive and – perhaps more importantly – to forget his previous mistakes. “The person offering this prayer is a fallible human being whose past is littered with unfortunate decisions that are displeasing to God. However, the steadfast love…of the Lord outweighs any punitive instincts, and the speaker appeals to the divine tendency to forgive transgressions.” In other words, he knows that God wants to forgive him. How? Because, through Ezekiel, God tells us just that. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” God’s love for us and desire for our salvation is why God gives us so many chances – to try to choose the right thing -and if we fail, to choose to ask for forgiveness – and then choose to try again.
In the Episcopal Church, we view baptism as the mark of membership in the Christian community, and we view Jesus Christ as the pathway to our salvation. We do not, however, agree with the view that once you have chosen the way of Jesus you no longer have to be responsible for your behavior. In terms of the old debate between “faith” (only believe and you will be saved) and “works” (what matters is not what you believe but what you do) – we understand both to be necessary. We believe that God asks us to try to match our actions to our beliefs and, when we can’t, to admit [our] need for forgiveness. That is the process of Christian living.
It is also the message of today’s gospel. This text has often been interpreted as a template for determining who gets “in” and who is “out” of the kingdom of God. But Jesus’s presentation suggests that any such divisions cannot be set in stone. In the parable, Jesus refers to the two sons only as “the first” and “the second.” In the version we read today, the first is the one who initially defies his father but later changes his mind and does what he is asked. But there are some versions in which the roles are reversed, in which the first – the “good” son, is the one who did not ultimately do the father’s will. This suggests that the point of the story is not who gets to go to heaven, but rather that anyone can inherit the kingdom of God. Like Ezekiel, Jesus says that we are not bound by our genetics, or even by our previous behavior. We are constrained only by the choices we make in the present. He is telling us that it is never too late to change our minds- that we can “turn” to him, again and again and again.
Just like my children – just like me and my sister – just like all human beings – sometimes we will be the one that does the right thing immediately, sometimes we will be the child that makes promises we can’t keep, and almost all the time we will make mistakes and need to ask for God’s forgiveness. God’s most gracious blessing is that we can. “The truest thing about us,” says Brother Geoffrey Tristram, “is not our sins, not the mistakes we have made, not the pain we have caused others. The truest thing about you and me is that we are God’s beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image- and created for Life and Love.” AMEN.
Samuel L. Adams, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 107.
Timothy B. Cargal, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 103.
 Gilberto Collazo, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 114.
Brother Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, (September 28, 2017), “Children of God,” in Brother, Give us a word,”