The Epicenter and Periphery of Worship

28 “What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not go;’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Matthew 21 (NRSV)

I’m going to press us once more on the importance of words.  In this parable, the first son defies his father.  He’s obstinate, insolent, and shameful.  In this culture a son did not speak to a father in such a way without consequences.  The second son honors the father with his dutiful reply—he plays the correct cultural notes.  Notice he doesn’t say, I will go at some later point, but “I go, sir,” as if he’s already in the process of doing what the father has requested.  Both sons use the strongest verbiage available to them.  But words must stand on the shoulders of something more substantive than themselves.  

This parable comes after Jesus has asked the temple leadership whether John the Baptist was a messenger from God or not.[1] John’s message centered on repentance.  He wanted the sheep of Israel to change the direction of their lives—to change their minds about what they were doing and where they were headed.  John’s accusation of the religious leaders is that they seem to think that being sons of Abraham is all they need to inherit the kingdom of heaven.[2] His challenge is that there is a movement to the Kingdom.  You can’t inherit the kingdom as a result of a birthright; you have to actively join the movement.  

Now Jesus is saying to the temple authority that their many words of adulation toward the God of the Kingdom cannot make them heirs of the Kingdom.  So too, for those prostitutes and tax collectors whose rough language and life may seem offensive, if they’ll change their direction and jump into the Kingdom movement they will surely be called sons and daughters of God, in spite of their words and appearance.  

What really matters is not the words with which you and I speak to God.[3]  What matters is the direction of our lives. There have been many moments in my life where I have been filled with complex emotions toward God.  There have been moments when my prayers have been filled with impetuous nos. In those same moments I have felt the steady, gracious, shepherding hand of Jesus nudging me toward the Kingdom.  My ugly words aside, I’ve done what the father asked.[4] This, this is worship at its deepest level.  Onward toward love and redemption even when I’d rather curse God and die. 

Do you see how this undoes the now normal notion that songs (or any other utterance of words) equal worship?  

Songs are like the particulate spray of a fountain—on sunny days this dusty cloud of water casts a multitude of rainbows from several perspectives.  It’s a beautiful and splendid sight for those who stop long enough to behold the color.  But it only exists occasionally as the periphery of an explosive force at the fountain’s head.  Let us sing and occasionally meet splendor in the melody.  Let us sing because God is worthy of song, but let us never make the periphery the main function.  Let us remember that God wants people diving into the Kingdom’s rip-current—the explosive epicenter of the Kingdom’s force.  May we do this together.  May we go his direction when it hurts, when we’re messed up, when we doubt, and when we ache. And may we discover that the choice to go in his direction is all the worship he’s ever wanted.

[1] The exact question is, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
[2] “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’” (Mt. 3:7-10; see also, Lk. 3:7-14).
[3] This sentence could lead us to dubious conclusions without some explanations.  What I really want to communicate is that honesty toward God is of utmost importance and sometimes that will seem rather rough to onlookers.  We should take confidence in the fact that we may speak as boldly as the first son when emotions run high.  As I’ve written before, this is the ancient art of lament.  On the other hand, don’t expect to come on a Sunday where we speak disparagingly of God.  There is a tenuous balance to be struck here, one that I think we’re all learning.
[4] I have also been the second son.  In fact, I think I’ve been the second son much more often than the first.


  1. This really resonates with me, Matt. The subject of worship is very intricate and personal, and I think you captured it well with the image of the fountain. It is quite a work of grace that God reaches us in the midst of our impetuous prayers. If moving in the direction of God is worship, what role would you say musical worship has in our lives? If the words that we sing aren't the most important part, perhaps the community with which we sing shows us something new...



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