They are right, these Pharisees: If the prophet speaks and acts for heaven then it is right to make haste to listen and obey. Or, in reverse, if they say that John was not a prophet they will dishonor him in the hearing for those who thought that certainly he had been. Those who had thought him a prophet had come, listened, repented and been baptized. They, the Pharisees, had come and been rejected by John (Matthew 3) As a matter of fact, he had some strong words for them:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
One might conclude that John had said to them: You are the chaff. The fire will be brought for you. Your way of life is on the way out like a tree that is surrendered to the ax. Maybe like a tree that is cursed and withers at the master’s command as has just happened but maybe an hour ago.
But here they are: they had been unserious about the efficacy of John and had been called out for it. John, a prophet after the mold of Elijah, had not been tied to the customs and scruples of the day. He had called them vipers. That had stung their sense of honor. It is not likely that they had mourned John’s death nor would it have bothered them at all to hear that Herod had locked up John. To them, he was no prophet.
Coming to think of it, no one is a prophet when he prophesies against us. No, real prophets only let “them” have it and let us think that for us all is well, or at least they leave us alone — right? Well if you are powerful enough, you can make sure it happens that way or at least you can silence the prophet. Herod had done that. The Old Testament is full of examples of court prophets now only remembered for having stood up to the real prophets to their ultimate disgrace.
A prophet’s job is simple, daunting, and downright scary: Verbalize the will of God so that when it is done in all its beauty and terror the people will recognize that there is a God in the land and that God’s will is not to be trifled with since it will be done even if we stand in its way. It will be more painful for everyone involved, including God, if we choose to stand in the way of the will of God, but in the end, someone will loose. Prophets have the gift to acknowledge blinding flashes of the obvious: In any fight with God, God wins. It should be obvious but it isn’t.
We all fight God now and again. O.K., I know, you are saying to yourself: “I am a good person, I don’t get up in the morning and make a list how I will offend God today.” Few people do actually do that. But as Jesus observes, using the words of Isaiah: “‘This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (Mt 15:8-9)
The heart of the first son in the parable is in the right place but his lips are unclean. The lips of the second son give the father honor but his heart is far from him. To be honest, both offend the father. One did the father’s will, the other gave him the expected public submissive answer. One spoke as if he did not have a stake in the house, the other acted like it.
It is so ambiguous this parable. Both have given offense. Ask any parent at chore time. Both saddened or angered the father. I prefer kid 1.0, am faced with kid 2.0 frequently, but I long for the kid implied but not seen: The one who says yes and then does. There is a kid 4.0 as well, the one who says “no” and means “no” and does “no.” At least that one is true to his word.
But maybe the fact that both sons have given offense is a good reminder who they both stand for in real life. If repentance is the will of the Father that begs to be done, then obviously someone needs turning. In the house of Father, and this interchange is taking place in the Temple, there is a lot of praising going on. At the Jordan river people were baptized into repentance.
Maybe the question that demands to be asked is this: when, how, and where do the good attitudes of kid 1.0 and 2.0 meet in kid 3.0? You know, the kid who gives honor and praise to God and works his will? Is this the one who was baptized by the one that was to come, baptized with the Holy Sprit? Is this the one who becomes the true worshipper who lives like he truly belongs to God as a child of Abraham who gives glory to God with both lips and hands?
We can all sing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” because that is who we are. But do we act like little children, defiant at chore time, or have we put childish ways behind and taken our place as those who act and work as if the business of the family was ours, not just the Father’s with us looking on and engaging when it suits us. Maybe, someone will eventually write: “Adult Children of the Heavenly Father,” but then, people might think we are forming a 12 step group.