Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk- Matthew 21: 23-32
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Imagine there were two mayors of nearby towns in the Old West. Let’s call them Dodge City and Mayberry. There were a lot of Christian people in these towns who cared about electing a mayor who followed the path of Jesus. Both towns had poverty and corruption and the rich taking advantage of the poor. One mayor really talked the talk and told the people all the right answers about how he was a strong Christian man who would do everything to restore righteousness to the town. He was elected mayor of Dodge, but he didn’t follow through on the things he promised. In fact he increased corruption in town, but kept saying he was a Christian so the townspeople looked the other way. Like the second son in Jesus’ parable, he talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
The second town, Mayberry, elected a mayor who didn’t talk much about how holy he was, so it worried some of the people. But they elected him anyway and he actually did take care of the poor and ended the corruption in town. Turns out he followed the way of Jesus after all, even though he didn’t like to brag about it! Just like the first son in Jesus’ parable, this mayor may not have talked the talk, but he certainly walked the walk.
It’s human nature to judge people by what they say, to judge a book by its cover. But sometimes we mistake arrogance for excellence or humility for incompetence. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells this parable in response to questions about John the Baptist. The chief priests and the elders assumed John was a nutcase, not someone who seemed like a real messenger from God. He was like the first son in the parable. And the chief priests and elders themselves were perhaps who Jesus meant by the character of the second son. They talked the talk and acted like they were doing God’s will, but in reality they weren’t.
John the Baptist wasn’t what they expected. And Jesus Christ wasn’t what they expected! God has a way of showing up in people we don’t expect. And all those people who talk themselves up about how holy they are, well, be careful with them. As Jesus says: you will know them by their fruits.
This parable teaches us to not to judge others as doers of God’s will by their words alone. Pay attention to their fruits. Someone might be a good sweet talker and convince us by his or her words. But actions speak louder than words. “You will know them by their fruits.” The fruit of the first son is that he does the will of the Father even though he didn’t say he would, while the second son is the one who says the right thing but doesn’t do it.
In today’s world too, we all too often mistake those who are arrogant and sure of themselves for the truly religious. While assuming those who don’t meet our expectations aren’t doing God’s will. Maybe there’s a boisterous televangelist proclaiming he’s doing God’s will and you should all listen to him! But when it comes down to it his actions reveal he cares more about money and power than doing God’s will in the world. And then there’s your quiet unassuming coworker who doesn’t talk much about God and doesn’t go to church, but lives a life of serving those in need. Which one of the two does the will of the Father? Sometimes looks aren’t what they seem and those who don’t seem like they’d be servants of God, like the first son, live out God’s will while the holy rollers don’t.
Perhaps more than anything, this parable may be teaching us to learn to investigate our own judgements. To think twice about who we listen to. To recognize our own flawed way of discerning truth. If we’re swayed into trusting someone just because they say they’re Christian or have some kind of divine authorization, watch to see what kind of fruit they bear and don’t just take their word for it.
And don’t think doers of God’s will necessarily will be proclaiming their holiness to you. The point of the parable is about recognizing that not everyone who talks the talk walks the walk, and that just because someone doesn’t talk the talk doesn’t mean they don’t walk the walk… And yet, as Christians we are called to both talk the talk and walk the walk. We are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world and we are also called to love and serve our neighbor, the neighbor across the street and the neighbor across the globe.
But the Good News here isn’t that God judges us by our works instead of our words. That might not be good news for most human beings. The truth is, most people don’t walk the walk all that well, and we don’t talk the talk all that well either. We don’t bear good fruit all the time, and we don’t say the right things either. The Good News here is that Jesus has walked the walk for us. Jesus walked the walk to the cross, and died so that we might have life. Jesus walked the walk for you, for me, for the world. And because Jesus walked the walk, our world is redeemed, reconciled, restored.
And one last word about the parable that is Good News too. You see, both sons are still the father’s children—no matter if they talk the talk, or walk the walk, or don’t do either. They are still part of their father’s house no matter what. Now that’s not to say doing God’s will isn’t important. It is very important. But it’s not what determines whether we are God’s children or not. It’s not how much we talk ourselves up that saves us, and it’s not how much we walk the walk that saves us. We are God’s children either way.
And as we grow up and become mature children of God, we WILL learn to hear God’s voice and gladly do God’s will. It doesn’t make us any more loved by God, it just means we’re starting to grow up. To paraphrase CS Lewis, “every parent is pleased with their child’s first attempts to walk. But every parent hopes and expects their child to grow into a healthy, fully walking adult.” It seems like the sons in this story are still learning how to walk. And honestly, so are all of us. On this side of eternity, I think everyone is still learning to walk. But even now we can understand that the mature Christian walks the walk not because he or she has to in order to be saved, but because she joyfully surrenders her life to God and gladly walks the walk, or at least tries to, every day. And no matter how often we fail, we are part of God’s beloved household no matter what. Some days we may be the son who says the right thing and does the opposite. Other days we might say the wrong thing but do the right thing. And on our good days we might actually do both. Whatever the case, trust that God is at work in your life, and that no matter what you say or do God loves you, and is making you holy, and declares that you are God’s beloved child.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.