Do the Right Thing
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2023
“Do the Right Thing”
In 1989, well-known film director, producer, screenwriter and actor, Spike Lee, released a film entitled “Do the Right Thing.” The movie is about racial tension that leads up to violence and loss of life. The film won wide acclaim and numerous awards, including last year in 2022 being named the 24th greatest film by Sight and Sound magazine (Do the Right Thing - Wikipedia). But what happens when people don’t do the right thing? Or when they say one thing and do another? That’s what is before us in today’s Gospel lesson as Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his day after they question his authority. Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons, one who said he would do what his father asked and go and work in the vineyard, but did not; and the other who said no, but then actually did do what his father asked. We consider Jesus’ words today in that Gospel lesson under the theme, “Do the Right Thing.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus had just entered into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday amidst shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9). That’s earlier in this same chapter of Matthew 21, but now the honeymoon is over and things are starting to get ugly. The week would end with Jesus’ death upon the cross. Jesus’ parables are often preceded by a less-than-positive encounter with the religious leaders of his day. These individuals represented the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem – the chief priests, elders and scribes. They regarded Jesus as a renegade start-up who was leading the people astray. Again and again in the New Testament, the religious leaders want to know who sent Jesus? Where did he get the authority to do what he was doing? He couldn’t have been acting on his own. Someone had to be behind all that he was saying and doing, but who? The day after Palm Sunday – Monday of Holy Week – they confront Jesus with their question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23). In good Jewish fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question: “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:24-25). They all huddle up and take counsel; they argue about it, and then choose to take the easy way out. Their reply to Jesus is, “We don’t know” (Matthew 21:27a). True to his word, Jesus will not reveal to them the source of his own authority. These individuals were given the opportunity to do the right thing; namely, to come clean. But they can’t do it – or better put, they won’t do it. They refuse to admit that they were wrong about John the Baptist and they refuse to risk the wrath of the people who believed that John was a prophet sent from God. Their indecision is their decision. Following this encounter, Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons.
Both sons in Jesus’ parable hear the same request from their father, but each responds differently in speech and action. How many times have we done what each of those sons did? Like the first son, when asked to do a task, we said nope, I’m not doing that, but later, changed our mind, and did what we were asked? Or like the second son, said that we would do what we were asked, but never followed through, leaving the task unfinished? At the end of the day, if our words and our actions are not in alignment, guess which of the two people are going to believe? As the old phrase goes, actions speak louder than words. If we do not do what we say, then our words become hollow and empty; trust is eroded. Will we do the right thing, not only when others are watching, but when no one else is watching except God alone? Will we do the right thing, even if it means going against public opinion? Will we do the right thing, even if it means that instead of being rewarded for this, we might suffer for it?
Jesus’ parable is first spoken against the religious leaders whose actions did not align with their words. They are like that second son who said that he would go and work in the vineyard, but did not. It was the untouchables, the lowest of the low – tax collectors and prostitutes – who did go into the vineyard. They accepted the witness of John the Baptist who came to prepare the way of the Lord, calling all people to repentance (Matthew 3:1-12). They enter the kingdom of heaven before the religious leaders, who didn’t believe they had anything to repent of. It is the tax collectors and prostitutes who know that they don’t have a leg to stand on before God. Their trust is not in themselves, but in God alone.
We do not have a leg to stand on before God, either. When it comes to doing the right thing, there is only One whose words and deeds are in perfect alignment. The words in today’s Epistle lesson tell us this about him: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11). This is Jesus, who willingly said yes to his Father’s instruction. This is Jesus, who willingly entered into the vineyard of this world to suffer and die for our salvation. This is Jesus, who is that obedient Son who did the right thing, all for you and for me. The “way of righteousness” (Matthew 21:32) that John the Baptist preached about is wonderfully fulfilled in the “way of the cross” that Jesus walked, all in obedience to the Father’s will.
Try as we might, we will not always do the right thing in life. When by the grace of God, we do, then to God be the glory! But when we do not, then let us turn in repentance to Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son, and by faith find in him forgiveness and grace to help in time of need. Amen.
other sermons in this series