Driving in Florence turned out to be a little traumatic. We’d taken the Eurostar to Paris, dined well, and caught the overnight sleeper to Florence. Sleeper was a little bit too optimistic a description for that experience. We were frightened of oversleeping and ending up in Rome, where the train terminated, and if you needed to make yourself comfortable during the night it was a far too public walk along a corridor, having to lock doors because of the paranoia of thieves stealing passports and such like. So, we arrived in Florence early in the morning, not having slept well. We found the car hire place in a back street in the city centre very easily. They were expecting us. We had booked and paid for a small car, but they very kindly upgraded us to a large Mercedes. To get out involved narrow twisty roads, with a much larger and much flashier car than I was used to. By going very slowly, and hoping my guesses at the Italian road signs were accurate, we escaped the city, but not without an eventual fine for wrongly guessing a traffic sign.
Driving in Florence, was good practice for driving in Farnham. I’ve lived there sufficiently long that I can be rude about it as one of Farnham’s own. Indicators in Farnham seem to be used sparingly and somewhat randomly; the normal rules of priority rarely apply, both those who take priority that isn’t theirs, and those who don’t take priority that is theirs so waiting in vulnerable places; and there is also the matter of speed and basic courtesy, which too often seem to be modelled on Spanish and Italian driving. Of course I’m sure Godalming is a model of propriety in driving. So often, it can seem as if the rules and the code on roads aren’t what they’re supposed to be.
Thinking of it from another angle, in some households getting the chores done can produce similar situations. I’m not doing that, says one of the family, about the dish-washing, lawn-mowing, or ironing. Then energy returns, or help is offered, or an incentive is mentioned, and they end up doing it quite cheerfully and well.
Or we might say we’ll cover some duty, but we let other plans get in the way. The dishes are left in the sink when a friend asks us out for the evening; the baby’s nappy gets neglected as the football on television hits an exciting phase; visiting Grandma is squeezed out by a hectic week at work.
That seems to be the code Jesus is thinking of in his parable of two sons. Promises become mirage, appearances deceive, and the road is paved with good intentions that never turn into action. It can happen in our dealings with God as well as in our driving or our domestic life.
To make sense of that, I think we need to start at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. That was where the chief priests and the elders of the temple said to Jesus, what right have you got to be doing this?
Jesus has been shifting the church furniture. Cleansing the temple, we call it, overturning tables, kicking chairs aside, upsetting people who thought it was their space. It’s natural that someone should ask him what authority he had to act like this. So he does what he often did, which is to answer a question with another question. What did you think of John the Baptist?
It’s an evasive tactic, you may say, but it has a purpose too. Jesus rated John highly; John had prepared the way for him, and his own movement started as a spin-off from John’s. If his questioners couldn’t make sense of John, they wouldn’t understand Jesus. If they thought well of John, then Jesus had a starting point for talking about his own work. So what did they think about John the Baptist?
The answer was a glum silence. Along the lines of we have no official position on John. His file is being investigated. No, don’t call us. We’ll let you know, when we take a formal view.
A more honest answer would have been negative. We didn’t like John. He got under our skin. His sort of religion isn’t our style. The desert isn’t our scene. Baptising in the Jordan! You don’t know who else has been in that water.
So Jesus says, you do know who’s been in that water. You know that John attracted people religion doesn’t normally reach, that John caused a stir in the land, that there was real credibility in the way he spoke about right and wrong, that there was enough of God in his work to convince you. But you wouldn’t be convinced.
Which takes us to the two sons. The first son wanted no part in the day’s labour but then changed his mind and helped; he stands for some of the people who listened to John. Tax collectors and prostitutes, says Jesus. Not just them, I’m sure. But there were plenty of people who didn’t have much to do with organised religion, whose lives appeared to be saying no to God, who gave John a hearing and found that John gave them hope.
The water of Jordan washed away a lot of guilt, despair, and bad memories. It washed away fears people had carried that God’s grace could never reach them. Forgiveness, starting again, getting in touch with God in ways they never thought possible, all of this began to happen.
It might seem that these people had turned their backs on God. But God hadn’t turned away from them. They found a new direction, a way into the kingdom, through John’s ministry and message. Their lives gained new energy and joy. They found their way onto God’s team. That’s the first son.
The second son is the flip-side of that. He seemed an ideal member of the family; he said he would help. But he didn’t. Jesus was looking at his questioners in the temple. Some people, he suggested, seem faithful, but have missed out badly on what God is doing in the land. They’re well known for their piety, but when the Spirit stirred through John the Baptist, they kept a safe distance. They are involved in organised worship, but they need to refresh their own relationship with God. They say they’re on God’s team, but they’ve missed out on the main game in town. Jesus was asking his questioners to think again. Even if they had kept away from John, there was still time to change their mind, and respond to Jesus. It wasn’t too late.
And I wonder if Jesus sometimes asks us to change our mind, to go deeper with him, to stop being content with where we’ve got to as Christians, with the things that are right with our living and the things that are wrong. I wonder if he invites us still to look for a fresh start in our faith, for renewal and refreshment, for a fuller relationship with God than we had before.
One message of this parable is that changing your mind is allowed. God doesn’t judge us by the refusals and resistance of the past, by the times we have been stuck and stagnant in our Christian life, but by the faith and love of the present. The parable invites us to look for God’s renewing work in our day, to see what we can gain from it and give to it.
And the parable reminds us that God loves people the church isn’t very good at reaching. John’s ministry had something fresh of God within it. He shared grace in places organised religion did not touch. Jesus criticised those who wouldn’t join in. You’re like a son, he said, who promises to help on the farm but doesn’t ever get round to doing it.
So what is God doing in Godalming? Where is God renewing faith and refreshing lives? Where are people finding their way into God’s kingdom? What might God want you or me to give or gain here?
We still need to watch out for those erratic drivers, in Surrey as much as on the continent, on our roads. But I think this passage reminds us that churches too need to be watchful, for the ways that God might be at work in our neighbourhood. That needn’t make us travel erratically; but it might make us think again about the direction we have been going.