Have you ever noticed how we label people? We do this as soon as we meet them.
In fact, according to a team of Princeton researchers, it takes only a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger based on his face alone. And longer exposures don’t significantly alter those first impressions. If anything, they only reinforce them. The expression “you never have a second chance to make a first impression” is quite true.
But we don’t need a team of researchers to tell us that attractive people have access to opportunities denied to less attractive people in virtually all areas of life. We only have to look around us and observe.
But we also know that this inborn tendency to judge a book by its cover can mislead. Mere appearances can deceive.
Consider, for example, our Gospel lesson. Here we meet the chief priests and elders of the people. The lesson doesn’t describe their appearance, but we can be sure that they dress the part. They are decked out in the regalia of the scholar and teacher. They want to be seen as experts in the law, spiritual guides for the perplexed, bearers of light for those in darkness. Who else than these men could be more concerned about truth, more committed to searching out the will of God?
At least that is how they appear. They approach Jesus as he is teaching in the temple. They come out to challenge him—this one who is upsetting the system. They demand that Jesus tell them who he thinks he is: by what authority is he changing and teaching things, and who gave him the right to do so? (Chelsea Harmon). They want to ascertain the truth.
But the exchange between them and Jesus reveals something very different. Jesus asks them a question of great theological import. “John’s baptism, did it come from God, or did it come from mere human beings?”
If they were really concerned about truth, about searching out the will of God, they certainly would have engaged the question. After all, John was a prophet, powerful in word and deed. That was undeniable.
And would they not have known that their own Scriptures, which they revered as God’s truth, pointed to the coming of such a prophet? Could not John be the one about whom the prophet Malachi prophesied? Could he not be the Elijah who was to come, the one who was to turn the heart of Israel back to God, so that she could be ready to welcome the Messiah?
At the very least, this is a topic worthy of theological debate. But they care nothing about the truth. Rather, they sacrifice truth on the altar of expediency. They are not truth-seekers, despite appearances; they are politicians.
The consideration that guides their response is not the status of John as prophet, but their own status, the preservation of their own power and influence, among the people.
“If we answer, “from God,” then Jesus will humiliate us in front of the people, because he will answer: “then why didn’t you listen to them?” But if we answer: “from mere human beings,” then the people will turn against us, because they all hold John to be a prophet.
“We do not know.” Come on. They are wasting Jesus’ time. But Jesus is patient. Their obstinance provides him with an occasion to tell them a parable about two sons.
This parable is not to be confused with the parable of the prodigal son, which is the far more familiar of the two. There too we have two sons. There too we have an obedient and disobedient son.
But in this parable, it’s not at all clear how to distinguish between the two of them, how to tell the one from the other.
The first son refuses to obey his father’s command to go and work in the vineyard, but later changes his mind and goes. The second son enthusiastically responds to his father’s request to go and work in the vineyard, but then he stays home.
While the second son looked and sounded obedient, he proved to be otherwise. While the first son looked and sounded disobedient, he proved to be righteous by his repentance. Again, mere appearances can deceive.
We have spoken before about the power of the parable. It often holds a mirror before us and invites us to see in the characters our own reflection.
In this case, it holds a mirror before the chief priests and elders of the people. If they are willing to look, they will see themselves in the second son, ready and willing to serve his father. After all, are they not the truth-seekers? As it turns out, they are only pretending to be. The second son does not go.
But then, who is the first son, the one who at first is unwilling, but later changes his mind, and then does serve his father? Who looks at him and sees in him their own reflection?
Jesus tells them that it is the tax collectors and prostitutes. They stand for the weak and immoral and dishonest people. But they heard the preaching of John the Baptist and they believed him. It turns out they are the truth-seekers. And so they are going into the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and the elders of the people.
Who could ever have predicted this? There was nothing about a tax collector or a prostitute in Jesus’ day to lead anyone to expect that they would every amount to anything good.
The words of the parable are severe. But they are also words of grace, certainly to the tax collectors and prostitutes. But even to the chief priest and the elders, the door is not closed. There is still time to change their minds and believe. “Even in judgment, there is kindness and opportunity” (Chelsea Harmon).
The parable teaches us that the salvation of God excludes no one—not even the roughest, the most rebellious, the most hardened sinner, not even those who reject it when they first hear it.
Is this a conviction that we share? Is it a conviction that shapes our life together as a congregation? Does it find expression in how we relate to those who appear to be anything but the kind of people one expects to go to church on a Sunday morning?
I meet people on occasion who send their kids to Catholic schools. They themselves are not Catholic. Sometimes they are not even churchgoers at all. So it is puzzling why they send their kids to be educated at a religious institution. “Why?” I ask. “Because we want them to learn values,” they answer.
That seems right, but a closer look reveals that it is not as simple as that. The relationship the church has with “values” is not straightforward.
For example, would the tax collector and prostitute come to church to learn values? That is to say, would the weak, the immoral and the dishonest come to church to learn values? Perhaps. But if they believed that the purpose of the church is to stand for values, they perhaps would be ashamed to come, because their lives have fallen short.
But what if instead they came to church, not to hear about values, but to hear that they are valued? They are valued, because God in his grace extends his call to them too. He wants to have them too as sons and daughters.
The Apostle Paul was convinced. This is how he saw it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason, I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Tim. 1:15-16).
When sinners, through the message of the gospel, hear that they are valued, they learn to value themselves. They begin to value how they spend their time, how they treat their bodies, how they show up in the world.
The truth is that there is no one beyond the reach of salvation. There is no one without hope. There is no one who is too far gone. Recall that in response to his father’s order, the first one says: “I will not.”
We all know people, maybe even people close to us, who show no interest in the message of the gospel, who have rejected it outright, who persist in living like the tax collector and the prostitute. “I will not!”—that is what they say by their words and their actions. But does that mean we should count them out? That we should give up on them?
That one we have already labeled, that one about whom we have privately thought to ourselves: “he will never amount to anything” or “she will never get her life together”—that one may be destined to have a special place at the table in the kingdom of God. How do we know? We think we know, because we make a judgment on the basis of mere appearances, without factoring into our judgment the power of God to change people. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, Paul confessed, for it is the power of God to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
This is why the church can and must call everyone, without exception, without making superficial judgments based on first impressions or on criteria that the world dictates to them—that is why the church can and must call everyone to accept the message of the gospel, the power of God to everyone who believes.
We have been saying that appearances can deceive. Appearances certainly can deceive in the case of Jesus. Who can imagine that the one crucified on a Roman cross, a method of torture reserved for the basest, most vile of criminals, a form of execution for slaves, insurrectionists, and thieves—who can imagine that this one would occupy a place above all places, receive a name above all names, and assume the highest authority in earth and heaven?
Indeed, this is the most egregious case of “appearances can deceive.” Who can see the Son of God, the king of the universe, in the disfigured face and lacerated body of the crucified?
And yet it is to him that we look. And it is to his invitation that we respond. For he bids us have fellowship with him, with his disciples, as his disciples, at his table, where he presents to us the emblems of his suffering and shame in the bread, which is his body, delivered up for us, and in the wine, which is his blood, poured out for us.
Here too we ought not let appearances deceive. For this bread, set apart from ordinary use and consecrated by the Word of God and prayer becomes filled with the realities that they signify. It is just as we pray in our liturgy: “Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may become for us the communion in the body and blood of Christ.”
The bread that Jesus gives is his flesh, which he gives for the life of the world. On World Communion Sunday especially, we approach the table with this awareness, this awareness of the scope of God’s love, of God’s power, which embraces all the world. No one is beyond its reach, not even the most hardened sinner. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish, but have eternal life. Amen.