Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Parable of Two Sons and the Elf on Our Shelf

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells us a parable of a father with two sons. One refused to go and help out in the vineyard later changed his mind, and the other promised to go and help but failed to keep his promise, and the other . Which one did the will of his father? The first, that's right. Everyone knows that. But don't forget that both of them are still their father's sons.

At the end of the parable, Jesus warns the religious leaders who had questioned his authority that they were missing what God was doing in the world. "John [the Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness, but you did not believe him. The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, but, even when you saw it, you still didn't change your mind." Anyone who could get the notorious sinners of the day to repent and return to the Lord was surely a prophet. Yet even when the chief priests and elders saw evidence of John's prophetic power, they refused to change their mind and accept him as someone God had sent to God's people. And still these heart-hardened skeptics belong in the kingdom of God. The tax collectors and prophets may go in ahead of them, but eventually even these recalcitrant goody-goodies will find their way into God's fold.

I wonder what's more shocking to us as twenty-first century disciples of Jesus: that the tax collectors and prostitutes get first dibs on God's kingdom or that the chief opponents of Jesus get their share, too. In this season of "making a list and checking it twice," I wonder what's more surprising to us: that the naughty but apologetic kids among us get the biggest presents under the tree or that judgmental , self-righteous hypocrites like us get anything at all.

Jesus tells this parable as a response to those who question his authority as a God-sent teacher and prophet. "By what authority are you doing these things?" the religious leaders ask him. But Jesus refuses to answer them directly. Instead, he poses his own question to them: "Was the baptism of John from heaven or of human origin?" Of course, we see how those things are linked. Those who see that John the Baptist's message of repentance and preparation was pointing to the one who came after him, Jesus the Christ, do not doubt Jesus' authority. But the chief priests and elders refused to answer Jesus because they were afraid of what the people, who admired John, would think. But Jesus wasn't finished yet. He told them the parable of the two sons--one who appeared to reject his father but who did what was asked of him, and the other who appeared to accept his father's instructions but refused to comply. The implied question, of course, is whether we look like those who belong to God or act like those who belong to God. For me, however, the real possibility for a deeper relationship with God opens up when I remember that both belong to God; it's just that one looks the part but doesn't behave like it while the other acts appropriately but doesn't look like it. But both belong to God.

There's something fundamentally damning about putting God on a shelf and saying, "If you're good, God will see it and will reward you, but, if you're bad, God will see it and will not reward you." Spoiler alert: By substituting a elf for themselves, parents are hiding the fact that they are declaring to their children, "If you are good, I will love you more, but, if you are bad, I will love you less." We may not follow through with that, but, still, it's what we're communicating to them. In other words, even if the Elf on the Shelf sees our children's wicked behavior, we may still pile presents for them under the tree, but we've nevertheless conditioned our love upon their actions. (In that case, perhaps our parenting strategy needs as much attention as our theology.)

On the other hand, imagine what it does to a child to hear his or her parent say, "No matter how good or bad you are, I will always love you just the same." Imagine what it does to a child of God to hear his or her heavenly Father say, "No matter whether you look the part or act it, you will always be my beloved child." Does that not open up new possibilities for a lasting change in our behavior? Isn't that the only thing that gives us any hope of acting like the children of God we really are? Isn't knowing that we are loved the first step to acting like beloved children of God?

Whether you're just pretending or are hiding your faithfulness below a gruff, presumably sinful exterior, you still belong to God. Ideally, we would live and look according to our true identity as God's beloved children. But the only way that's possible is when we begin by hearing God declare his unconditional love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Let that love take hold of your heart. Let it shape you in to the child of God whom God has created you to be. And let that love--that grace--shape the way you love others, including your children. Do everyone a favor and throw the Elf on the Shelf into the fireplace and say to your children, "I will always love you no matter what," and watch how that love grows in your heart and in your home.

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