Matthew 21:23-32

Trick Questions

By Pastor Steven Molin

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of the joys of serving as a parish pastor is the privilege of helping couples prepare for their married lives together. I should tell you that, from the pastor’s point of view, the wedding itself isn’t necessarily the highlight. It is for the bride and groom; they love the wedding, and the reception, and the honeymoon. But for the pastor – for me at least – the joy comes in helping them prepare for marriage.

About ten years ago, I came across a tool for pre-marriage counseling; an instrument called Prepare. It’s a test consisting of 165 fill-in-the-bubble questions taken by both the bride and groom, and when it is scored, it becomes the basis for our counseling sessions together. Here is a sampling of the Prepare test.

Question: My partner has some personal habits that bother me: Strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree, strongly disagree.

Or this one:

Question: Sometimes I have trouble believing everything my partner tells me: Strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree, strongly disagree.

You can see how the Prepare instrument would provoke some interesting conversation among the three of us.

But there is one question among the 165 that I have never liked. It’s a trick question, really; a question for which there is not a satisfactory answer. The question is this:

My partner is the only one with whom I could have a meaningful marriage: Strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree, strongly disagree.

How do you answer a question like that? If you say “yes” you’re saying that out of six billion people in the world, you found the only one that is right for you? On the other hand, if you say “no;” if you say that there are others with whom you could find happiness, why pick this one? Why not wait for other possibilities. There is no correct answer to this trick question.

But it allows me to explore with the couple what were the reasons they chose this partner? Out of six billion people, what are the qualities and characteristics in this one person that made you want to share your life with them. Trick questions are like that: the answers don’t really matter, but rather, they open up the door for the conversations that will follow.

In our gospel today, Jesus and the Pharisees are exchanging trick questions. The Pharisees ask Jesus where he gets his authority to teach and heal, and they’re hoping to trap him into saying something stupid. Not likely, if you know anything about Jesus! And Jesus asks a trick question of his own, having to do with John the Baptist, and any answer the Pharisees offer will back them into a corner, so they play dumb. It is then that Jesus tells them, and us, a parable.

A certain man had two sons, and asks each of them to go to work in the vineyard. The first says no, but then he has a change of heart. The second says yes, but he never shows up for work in the vineyard. Then Jesus asks the Pharisees “Which of these two sons did the will of his father?” The Pharisees say that the first son did his father’s will, but it’s a trick question, because neither one did. The first son blatantly disobeyed his father, and right to his face. The second son sucked up to his father – he even called him “sir” – but he failed to follow through. Which one did the father’s will? Neither one.

But Jesus uses this trick question to teach the Pharisees about the Kingdom of God. You see, they were living examples of the second son in the parable. Self-righteous Jews were the ones who always gave the appearance of serving God. They followed all the picky religious rules; rules about what they should eat, and what they should wear, and how they should say their prayers. They looked and sounded very religious. But when it came to issues like loving their neighbor, or showing kindness to the poor, or showing compassion to the lowly, they never showed up in the vineyard! They said they would; their religion was very impressive when they were at the synagogue, but they did not live it out in their daily lives.

But the first son in the parable wasn’t much better. He stood for the tax collectors and the prostitutes of whom Jesus spoke; people who lived lives that were notoriously sinful. They didn’t have time for religion, and even if they did, some were of the wrong ethnic origin to worship God. But they had the ability to change directions, and when Jesus called them away from their sinful ways, they left those lives behind and followed him.

Now, here’s the word of grace in this parable: both were called “sons.” The father doesn’t disown either one of them, because of the things that they did or didn’t do. In fact, according to Jesus, both sons will still enter the Kingdom of God. One might go in ahead of the other, but neither is being excluded because of their sinfulness.

I’ve mentioned German theologian Helmut Thielicke before, and I’ll mention him again today. Thielicke’s take on the parables is that they are a mirror for us to look at, and they only have significance if we can see ourselves reflected in them. It’s easy to see the Pharisees in this parable; they are represented by the second son who said he would work but didn’t. And it’s easy to see those first-century scoundrels in the life of the son who refused his father’s request. But where do you see yourself?

In my view, the church is still filled with both kinds of people. Still, there are those whose religion looks and smells lovely when they are surrounded by other religious persons. They can quote scripture verses by the boatload. They know all the religious language, all the religious rituals. But they don’t go to work in the vineyard. And all the love, and all the kindness, and all the compassion that they speak of in church…tends to stay at church. I am reminded of the words to a Keith Green song written a generation ago:

To obey is better than sacrifice
I want hearts on fire, not prayers of ice
I want more than Sundays and Wednesday nights

But there are also those whose lives are laced with sin, whose language would make a sailor blush, and who wouldn’t know a bible from a dictionary if it were handed to them, but they are kind, and generous, and compassionate to no end. They don’t get it when it comes to religion, and yet they are walking examples of the very people Jesus came to love.

Which of those people is doing the will of God? It’s a trick question because neither of them is. But here is the word of grace: Which one of them is God’s daughter or son, which one of them does God want to nurture, and mold and change into walking examples of righteousness in the vineyard? All of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Copyright 2002 Steven Molin. Used by permission.