Like most children, in my room growing up, I had a large box full of toys. And like most children, although I loved to play with my toys, I did not like to put away my toys. But inevitably, as the day drew to a close, it would come time for me to get ready for bed and clean up my room. And so my father would say to me, "Okay Zachary, it's time to put away your toys and get ready for bed." "Yes, dad," I'd respond, and then return immediately to playing. After five minutes, my father would return to check on me, only to find me still playing joyfully and contently, with no hint of progress toward tidying up. "I thought I told you to clean up your room and get ready for bed," my dad would say with his best stern tone. "I was going to get ready for bed in just a second," I would retort. "But I told you to start cleaning up five minutes ago!" my dad would counter. "Stop disobeying and start cleaning!" "I'm not disobeying," I would protest, "I was going to clean up in just a few minutes." And then would come one of my father's legendary proverbs: "Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience. When I told you to start cleaning up, I meant now."
I've honestly lost count of how many times I heard my father say that growing up. But this memorable maxim always reminds me of a parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 21: "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard. 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go" (verses 28-30). My father would cringe at both of these sons' responses. One disobeys his father outright by saying he will do something and then does not follow through while the other son delays obedience by baldly telling his father, "I will not obey you," although he later changes his mind. My father would say of both these boys, "They are both disobedient. For one breaks his word and the other delays obedience. And delayed obedience is the same as disobedience."
In order to understand the full brunt of Jesus' words, a tradition from the Aggadah, a compendium of ancient rabbinic homilies, proves helpful. The ancient rabbis taught that when God first gave the Ten Commandments, he offered them to all the nations on earth. He appeared to the Edomites, Moabites, and Ishmaelites. But, upon hearing the injunctions against murder, theft, and adultery, they rejected God's offer, complaining that such restrictions would unduly inhibit with their licentious living. It was Israel alone who accepted God's Ten Commandments. For the ancient Jews, then, this tradition became a source of great pride and even arrogance. After all, they were the ones who said "yes" to God's rules! They were the ones who saluted the Lord and said, "We will obey!" But in the parable of these two sons, Jesus exposes the truth of Israel's hollow acceptance of God's commandments.
Jesus' words were meant to directly challenge Israel's supposed willingness to obey. They may have said "yes" to God's Ten Commandments while other nations said "no," but they certainly didn't follow through on their verbal pledge. The other nations, however, while initially refusing God's ways, were now repenting and turning to God through Jesus Christ. And although delayed obedience is the same as disobedience, delayed obedience is not irreversible disobedience. For our God, even when we disobey him initially, sometimes grievously, always gives us another chance to do things right the next time. Thus, Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you, [O Israel]. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him" (verses 31-32). Tax collectors and prostitutes disobeyed God for a long time. But when they met Jesus, they repented. And Jesus welcomed them. And now the question is, "How about you?"
As sinners, we all disobey God. It is part of our very nature. However, our disobedience needs never to be irrevocable. For our Lord extends his hand, again and again, and perpetually makes to us his offer of grace: "You've delayed your obedience thus far, but you can still repent and begin again. Now you can walk with me." Will you listen to his voice?