What Does God Want?

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32

It was the father of psycho-analysis, Sigmund Freud, who famously wrote in a letter to Marie Bonaparte, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”

Bill Cosby, not a doctor but who played one on TV a couple decades ago, had perhaps the best response: “Sigmund Freud once said, ‘What do women want?’ The only thing I have learned in fifty-two years is that women want men to stop asking dumb questions like that.”

So if women are from Venus and men are from Mars…what planets can a person possibly use to illustrate the fathomless mystery of the question, “What does God want?”
Perhaps here as well, Mr. Cosby’s response is the beginning of wisdom: stop asking foolish questions. In this he sounds like Martin Luther, who once was asked by a student what God was doing before He created the world. Luther, clearly not in the best of moods, replied, “Creating hell for people who ask dumb questions.”

But that question, “What does God want?”, drives so much of the religious engine, that it seems impossible to ignore it. If you take a look at most of the world’s religions it does seem as though what God wants is obedience, compliance, submission.

For instance, the Quran says, “The only religion approved by God is submission.” The word “Islam” is from the Arabic word for “submission”…submission to God. So various Islamic teachers have written, “Submission is the religion of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad…and has been since the time of Adam.”

And it’s amazing…when you listen to many a Christian speak about his or her faith, it sounds so Islamic! So often the description boils down to something like, “Believe in God and obey the rules!” Submission!

And no wonder, when we get an Old Testament reading like this one today. God says to Ezekiel, “The soul that sins shall die.” And then He concludes this revelation by saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone…so turn and live.” God doesn’t want to destroy you, but unless you hop to it, you’re toast. Hmmm…sounds mighty clear what God wants: Obedience. Submission!

Yeah but…but…but…what about all those Bible verses about faith? You know, “By grace you have been saved through faith…” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…and you will be saved.” “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Faith! That’s what God wants. Faith. Belief.

So we get torn between the two—between a kind of Tinkerbell Christianity and an Islamic Christianity. On the one hand it’s just “believe in God, believe in God, believe in God”…and when all else fails, “believe in God.” Or it’s a “believe in God, yes, but you’d better obey the rules!” Ya gotta give Him your money, ya gotta give Him your heart, your life, your whatever. Ya gotta be out there knocking on your neighbors’ doors and dumping a lotta Jesus talk on them. Ya gotta vote a certain way. You can’t just talk the talk, ya gotta walk the walk. And when in doubt, obey!

So what does God want? Really? A. Faith? B. Submission? C. All of the above? D. None of the above? The problem is, they’re each correct…and yet they’re all wrong.

The parable in our Gospel Reading is Matthew’s equivalent of the Prodigal Son Parable in St. Luke’s Gospel. In Luke, however, because of the themes he develops in his Gospel, the focus of that parable is really on the father of the two sons…the father who is extravagant in his welcome of the lost son and also is extravagant in his gestures toward that older son who stands apart from his brother in pride.

In Matthew, the parable that Jesus tells addresses St. Matthew’s theme of righteousness. So the focus is on the two sons: “Which of the two sons did the will of his father?” Which…at first hearing, seems to answer our question: What does God want? Well, the parable seems to say, God wants our obedience…if not right away, well better late than never…because the righteous son is the son who obeys his father.

Ah…but in Matthew the ultimate focus is not on righteous obedience itself. The focus is on the mind behind that obedience. Both sons are disobedient, but one “changes his mind.” Or would it be more accurate to say that his mind is changed. And in that little turn of phrase we see Jesus, who makes all the difference!

As I said before, both the Tinkerbell version of Christianity—just believe, believe, believe—and the Islamic version of Christianity—just obey, obey, obey—both are correct in so far as you can find verses in the Bible to support them. However, they are both wrong, ultimately, because Jesus, a crucified Jesus, is incidental for both.

You see, this parable is not really about 2 sons…it’s about 3 sons. The one son says “No” to the father. Among Jesus’ listeners this is the tax collectors and prostitutes, children of Abraham, who by the way they live their lives are far from the kingdom. The son who says “Yes” to the father is the chief priests and elders of the people who talk the talk and walk the walk…and yet unseen to anyone except God, their hearts also are far from the kingdom. Both sons, measured by faith or obedience, are far from the kingdom.

There is only one Son whose mind whirs with the very thoughts of the Father, whose mouth speaks with the very Word of the Father, whose hands are perfectly obedient with the work of the Father. That one and only Son is Jesus. He is the Son whose “Yes” to God is spoken on behalf of those who cannot but say “No.” He is the Son whose perfect obedience to God is undertaken on behalf of those who cannot but disobey.

And it is the presence of this Son with the Nay-sayers, it is Jesus’ presence which changes their mind of “no” to “yes.” But the tragedy of the story is that the same presence of Jesus with the chief priests and elders only reveals how truly empty are their pious words and how truly dead is all their pious obedience. Truly the first are last, and the last are first.

So what does this tell us about what God wants? He wants Jesus. He wants us in Jesus and with Jesus and through Jesus. Us…who know very well the good we should do, but do not always do it. Us…who know very well the evil we should not do, but do it anyway. Us who cry “Lord, Lord, I believe”…but whose minds can “yes” one day, “maybe” the next, and “no way” the day after that…wandering farther and farther from the kingdom.

It is for this “change of mind” that we are baptized into Jesus Christ, so that His obedient hands might grow more and more to become the works of our hands. It is for that “change of mind” that we listen week by week in this place to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that His “yes” might grow more and more to become the faithful “yes” that springs from our tongues.

It is for this “change of mind” that by the Word and Sacraments we disobedient children of God die each day with the obedient Son, Jesus Christ, so that each day we may rise anew to live in His righteousness and in His purity.

For in the end there can be no “I believe” without that change of mind. There can be no obedient “yes” without that change of mind. But…above all…there can be no change of mind without Jesus.

So we come to the end, answering the question with which we began, crying out, “Give me Jesus!” Ah…the very thing God wants.