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September 25, 2011 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:28-32 'Saying Yes` and Doing No`
Dr. Ted H. Sandberg

The theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr told the Iollowing story to illustrate his point that grace may be
given through social structures, but the story will serve us well today. I may have shared the story
with you in the past, but it bears repeating as we look at the two brothers in this parable oI Jesus`.
'A certain wealthy industrialist who had built a Iortune in the most ruthlessly buccaneering Iashion
Iound himselI at mid-liIe in an embarrassing position. The practices by which he`d made himselI
wealthy in the early part oI |the 20
th
| century had become socially unacceptable. People no longer
admired economic royalists but tended increasingly to hold them in some contempt.
The tycoon wasn`t personally disturbed by this alteration in the national temper. But his Iamily was.
His wiIe and daughters didn`t like being the objects oI public disdain. It troubled them to see the
ancestral name made a synonym Ior diverse brutal policies in industrial relations. They wanted the
world to smile upon them when they went among ordinary Iolk and not spit behind their backs.
So the paterIamilias set about trying to improve his image. And in the process hired a Iamous public
relations man to do the job. His motives, mind you, were cynical. He wanted no substantive changes
in his ways but merely an appearance oI improvement.
AIter studying the problem careIully, his PR man announced that he would undertake the task, but
only iI the client modiIied his more egregious behavior somewhat. There is, the PR man said in eIIect,
some limit to what can be accomplished by sheer misrepresentation. For public occasions, at least,
there must seem to be some consonance between image and Iact. The industrialist would have to go
through a Iew oI the motions ordinarily associated with a social conscience.
Well, the great man grumped a bit. AIter all, he`d hired a Ilack not a chaplain. But encouraged by
stony silences at the dinner table, he relented at last and began to Ieign regenerate attitudes. He agreed
to sponsor a couple oI national charities, pretended to be interested in the home liIe oI his employees,
spoke in a kindly manner to his neighbors, and covered his hand more careIully when destroying the
competition. All with the worst intentions in the world!
But then a strange thing happened. The great pretender began to enjoy the new liIestyle to which he`d
committed himselI only superIicially. It Ielt good, he Iound, to be liked, to have people smile at him
in the streets, speak approvingly oI him at their clubs, and seek him out as an ally in their causes. His
wiIe and daughters bloomed in the springtime oI his new popularity, so that his home became a
happier place.
In short, Niebuhr concluded, the man was transIormed by his eIIorts to meet certain social
expectations. What began as a ruse inspired by the need to be approved produced an authentic change
in his view oI himselI and his world. And long aIter it had ceased to be necessary as a public relations
gimmick, the hero oI this true tale continued to lead a new liIe, even when its newness was costly,
because his old ways had become repugnant to him.
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1. Muehl, William, 'Social Grace, ReIlection, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT, Volume 76, No. 2,
January, 1979, p. 2.


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At the simplest, and to put Niebuhr`s story in the context oI Jesus` parable, sometimes /4ng 'Yes,
makes it become a true 'Yes. Our hero had begun by saying 'No to everything society held to be
important that didn`t have to do with making money, but was transIormed by continually saying 'Yes
to the values which most oI us hold important. The industrialist, perhaps like the second son in our
parable this morning, said 'Yes with every intention oI doing 'No, but God`s grace caught up with
him, and essentially, he repented oI his Iormer liIe, and was born again through the power oI God`s
grace working through society. With God, all things are possible. Even the 'No`s we intend to do,
can be turned into a 'Yes that will gloriIy God.
Not that the industrialist`s liIe is the best example oI how we should respond to Jesus Christ. But then,
Jesus` parable doesn`t oIIer us the best way oI accepting Him, does it? In this parable, we`re asked to
choose between two bad choices. Neither son acts like we`d like our sons or daughters to act.
UnIortunately though, iI we`re honest, we`ll admit that the parable reIlects behavior Iound all too oIten
not only in our daughters and sons, but in us, too. Lots oI times, we don`t act in the 'best way, but
act instead, like one oI these brothers. The question put beIore us by Jesus` parable is: What do we /4
in response to Jesus call?
Jesus tells this parable aIter his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when he was conIronted by the chieI
priest and elders who wanted to know by what authority Jesus cleaned the Temple and healed the blind
and the lame. Rather than directly answering his critics, Jesus asked them to tell him Irom where John
the Baptist`s authority came, Irom heaven or Irom humans. When the authorities realized the trap
Jesus laid Ior them, they reIused to answer Jesus, and so Jesus in turn, reIused to answer the religious
authorities.
It`s Iollowing this exchange that Jesus told the parable oI the two brothers in response to the priests
and elders, the implication clearly being that the authorities are like the second son. 'Jesus said, A
man had two sons; he went to the Iirst and said, Son, go and work in the vineyard today.` He
answered, I will not`; but later he changed his mind and went. The Iather went to the second and said
the same; and he answered, I go, sir`; but he did not go. Which oI the two did the will oI his Iather?`
They said, The Iirst.` Jesus said to them, Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are
going into the kingdom oI God ahead oI you. For John came to you in the way oI righteousness and
you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even aIter you saw
it, you did not change your minds and believe him.`
The Iirst son is liIted up as doing better than the second, because he repents and does the work
requested by the Iather. Even though he said 'No to begin with, he does eventually go to the Iield,
just as the tax collectors who at Iirst said 'No to John, but then repented. The point oI the parable is
the connection between repentance and the doing, and not on how the Iirst son reached that point.
I haven`t always made that connection between repentance and the doing. OIten I`ve Iocused, instead,
on the poor choices which Jesus oIIered. It`s easy to go oII on a tangent Irom the parable and Iocus on
how bad each son is. Obviously, the second son is bad because he never does do the work. He
essentially lies to his Iather, Ior whatever reason.
But the Iirst son, in reality, isn`t much better. Practically speaking, saying 'No and doing 'Yes isn`t
much better than simply saying 'No. One oI the most diIIicult tasks in planning a dinner Ior a large
number oI people is getting an accurate count oI who will attend. There are always a number oI
people who say they`ll be there, but then don`t show, just as there are those who never say they`ll


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attend, but then show up expecting to eat. It`s as much a problem to say, 'we`ll be there, but then not
show up as it is to say 'No, I`m not coming, and then attending. Neither is good.
As I`ve already said though, the point here isn`t really the behavior oI the two sons Irom a worldly
point oI view. Both react poorly to their Iather. Rather, the point is that however we come to say
'Yes, God will be pleased. Just as in the case oI the industrialist with whom we began, it`s honestly
saying 'Yes to God that`s all important in the end. While it`s best to say 'Yes immediately, and
then Iollow Christ Ior the rest oI our lives, it`s still good iI aIter saying 'No we repent and say 'Yes.
The key to the parable, the key to liIe, is that we repent.
Or more accurately, the key to the parable is that we repent, and then DO 'Yes, not just say 'Yes.
That was the problem Ior the priests and elders. According to Jesus, the didn`t DO, they didn`t LIVE
God`s law. They said 'Yes, but lived 'No. We are called to /4 'Yes.
Sometimes we Christians put our emphasis on repenting, but we kind oI let the Doing slide. In eIIect,
that`s what the second son did. We say, 'Yes Father, I believe in You. But then we discover that
working in the Iield is hard. The sun`s hot. There`s no breeze today. We`d much preIer doing
something else, something we want to do. So we don`t go into the Iield. Instead, we do our own
thing.
UnIortunately, while I like to picture myselI as the Iirst son, the one who says 'No, but does 'Yes,
when I`m honest with myselI, I`ve got to admit that oIten times I behave just like the second son.
OIten, or at least more oIten than I like to think, I`ve got to admit that I say 'Yes to God, but don`t
quite manage to do what I say I`m going to do. Most oI the time, this isn`t because I don`t want to do
what God asks. I`m not lying to God. I actually intend to do what God asks. But sometimes I`m
stopped Irom doing God`s will by my Iears. It`s scary in the Iield. And sometimes I`m stopped
because I Iind I want to what I want to do more than I want to do what God would have me to do.
For example. I don`t like conIrontation. Some people seek out conIrontation, but not me. It takes a
great deal oI energy Ior me to conIront someone, and so I mostly try and avoid it. There are times
though when doing God`s will involves conIronting another person. In those situations, though I
know what I should do, and though my head says 'Yes to God, I sometimes Iail to do what God
wants. My Iear and dislike oI conIrontation can keep me Irom doing the 'Yes.
Then other times, I just get busy doing my own thing. Stanley Purdam illustrates this with a memory.
He writes, 'One evening when my wiIe became ill Iollowing supper, I encouraged her to go to bed. I
promised I would do the dishes, even though it wasn`t my turn. She went to bed and I got involved in
some other project. When she arose the next morning, the dirty supper dishes were still in the sink, so
she washed them. But she was annoyed. The sincerity oI my promise, Purdam writes, 'had very
little meaning in the Iace oI the job undone.
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How oIten, I wonder, do we do with God what Purdam did with his wiIe: we get busy doing our own
thing and Iorget about doing what God asks. Sometimes we don`t do God`s will because oI our Iears,
but sometimes, it`s only because we`re doing what we want to do. Neither is a just cause Ior Iailing to
do God`s will. Both lead to our saying 'Yes and doing 'No. Our saying 'Yes to God means doing

2. I have lost the reIerence to this story by Stanley Purdam.


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'Yes as well. It means giving our time and money to God, even when we can think oI things that we
want instead, or even when we`re aIraid we might not have quite enough to do all we need to do. It
means sharing the Good News with Iriends and Iamily, inviting them to worship, even when we Ieel
we`re too busy, or when we`re aIraid they`ll say no. Saying and Doing Jesus` 'Yes means sharing, as
well as living, the Gospel oI Jesus Christ with those who haven`t heard the Good News, even iI we`re
aIraid to do that, or embarrassed to do it, or just too busy to do it.
The question Jesus laid beIore the chieI priests and elders oI his day, the good church goers oI his
time, was 'Are you living God`s will, or simply talking? Have you given yourselI totally to God?
The surprising implication was that the great religious leaders were saying 'Yes but doing 'No. Are
we here this morning any diIIerent Irom them? Are we saying 'Yes to Jesus Christ, and then doing
our best to live that 'Yes? Jesus asks each oI us that question. How do we answer?