Back when the telegraph was the fastest method of long-distance communication, a young man applied for a job as a Morse Code operator. Answering an ad in the newspaper, he went to the office address that was listed. When he arrived, he entered a large, busy office filled with noise and clatter, including the sound of the telegraph in the background. A sign on the receptionist’s counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office.
The young man filled out his form and sat down with the seven other applicants in the waiting area. After a few minutes, the young man stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office, and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. They muttered among themselves that they hadn’t heard any summons yet. They assumed that the young man who went into the office made a mistake and would be disqualified.
Within a few minutes, however, the employer escorted the young man out of the office and said to the other applicants, “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has just been filled.”
The other applicants began grumbling to each other, and one spoke up saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t understand. He was the last to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair!”
The employer said, “I’m sorry, but all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse Code: ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ None of you heard it or understood it. This young man did. The job is his.” They weren’t listening. They weren’t listening to the message that was right in front of them the entire time.
Our parable today could be summed up in one simple phrase, “How many times do I have to tell you ____?” Little Johnny got in trouble once by answering that question. His response, “Once more might do the trick.” We’ve all heard it or said it, “How many times do I have to tell you to turn off the lights?” “How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?” “How many times do I have to tell you that chocolate and peppermint don’t go together?” Maybe that one is just me.
In the parable, Jesus is talking to the Pharisee, the religious leaders. We have the owner of the vineyard who is God the Father, the vineyard that represents the people, and the caretakers of the vineyards who are the religious leaders. The parable tells us that God gave the care of the vineyard – his children – into the hands of the caregivers – the religious leaders. He gave them freedom. He entrusted the people’s spiritual well being to them, but over time, the religious leaders got it wrong, so God sent His prophets to bring correction. Yet, like the applicants for the telegraph job, the religious leaders weren’t listening to the message that was right in front of them the entire time. So time and time again they didn’t properly respond to that message. God says, “How many times do I have to tell you?” When they failed to listen to the prophets, God sent His one and only Son to say it again. But as we know, the religious leaders will end up killing Him. So what was this message that God kept trying to get across to His children? We heard it this morning in our Old Testament lesson: The Law. The Law given to Moses and written on the tablets of stone by the very finger of God was the message, but they did not hear it as it was intended.
Instead, the religious leaders took the Law of God and interpreted it. For example, we have the US Constitution. Even with the amendments its not that long of a document, but all the various laws that come from the interpretation of the Constitution go on for volumes and volumes. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time and before did the same thing with the Law of Moses. Instead of teaching it as God intended, they interpreted it and used it to enslave the people and get around the true intent of the Law. Today, Jesus spoke to the religious leaders using a parable to condemn them for their actions. In two more chapters, He is crystal clear, “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!… Woe to you blind guides!… You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
I can’t imagine the religious leaders intentionally unleashing this kind of wrath upon themselves, but it happened just the same. Why? Because they weren’t listening. Jesus said to them, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, ‘The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” God asks, “How many times do I have to tell you?” The Law is not about rules and regulations that can be numbered and written down in books. The Law is about justice, mercy, faithfulness. The Law is about the heart and that is what the religious leaders were not hearing.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “This is the religious leaders problem. This here is Fr. John’s issue – not mine. God will smite him if he goofs, but I’m off the hook on this on.” Please allow me to retort: 1 Peter chapter 2, “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Peter goes on, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
The things of God are not secret knowledge locked up in the heads of the ordained. As Luke says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” This is not just an issue for religious leaders. It is for God’s chosen people, His royal priesthood, His Holy Nation, and His special possession. It is for you and it is within you. The Gospel of Thomas has been classified as heretical by the church and perhaps by quoting from it I make myself a heretic, but it would seem to contain some truth. In it, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is within you, not in buildings and mansions of stone. When I am gone, split a piece of wood and I am there, lift a stone and you will find me.” Understanding the things of God is not some secret knowledge. The knowledge of God is within the heart of every believer – you need only to listen.
The words of Jesus teach us that the Law of God was not originally intended for scholars and theologians, for books, and ivory towers. The Law was for the heart. It was not about whether you could recite it verbatim, but can you live it. Paul said in the letter to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” He wants to know Christ by listening to the things of God, not up here – in his head – but here – in his heart. The boxing great Rocky Marciano reportedly once said, “Hit the heart and the head will follow.” He also said, “Why waltz with a guy for 10 rounds if you can knock him out in one?” We can try all sorts of ways to know God, but the quickest way to this knowledge is to listen with our hearts.
Thomas a Kempis wrote, “O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all that I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me.”
Say to God, “You alone speak to me.” Then listen.