Are we more than the sum of our greatest sin? Are we identified by our past failures or a legacy yet unwritten?
When I hear Tom Waites’ folk song, “Shiver Me Timbers, I’m Sailing Away”—recorded with success by both James Taylor and Bette Midler—I think of my father. The lyrics gnaw at my memories:
“I’m leaving my family, I’m leaving my friends, My body is at home, but my hearts is in the wind; And the clouds are like headlines In the new front-page sky Shiver me timbers, I’m sailing away.”
My father was always sailing away. Jesse Ellis Milton was born in 1908. He was born to a family suffering from Reconstruction in a small wooded area cleared by his grandfather who had come from a North Carolina revolutionary war family. The land was a gift of the government for my father’s grandfather’s service in the War of 1812. He had a proud heritage. But he also had a spirit like that song, “My body is at home, but my heart is in the wind.” The document copies in my library tell the story of a boy who sailed as an “Able-Bodied Seaman” from New Orleans to Panama, from San Francisco to Shanghai, and from Newfoundland to Liverpool. Along the way, he was married. His wife, Mae, wanted a more settled life. He tried farming. But he ended up back in the crow’s nest where the clouds are like headlines in a new front-page paper. And his marriage ended up on the rocks. When World War Two came, he had enough sea-going experience to be selected for Roosevelt’s new officer commissioning program. He graduated from the New London Maritime Officer’s Academy in New London, Connecticut. The school, at Fort Turnbull, was amalgamated into the Coast Guard Academy. My father was, thus, commissioned a U.S. Coast Guard officer. He was promoted. As a Merchant Marine Master of the Ship, he led crews of Liberty Ships from America to Britain, first in Land-Lease program, then, after December 7, 1941, he carried troops to the fight. His service was not without incident. He was torpedoed by U-128 in 1942. He lost ten men. He was rescued by a Dutch ship and spent three months in a hospital in Cape Town. After the war, he continued in the Merchant Marine, serving in Korea. I came along in his fiftieth year. He had been sent to New Orleans to be treated for alcoholism. In gratefulness and in shame and by my father’s pleading to spare my life from the abortioner’s knife I was born there. He brought me to his sister, my Aunt Eva. He died when I was almost six years of age. I recall him in his officer’s uniform, a photograph of which is placed with honor in our home today. But like so many veterans in war he returned with extraordinary complications from the ravages of war.
One day when I was about seven years old, I was with my Aunt Eva at the Red and White grocery store in Watson, Louisiana. It was the nearest village to our rural unincorporated area where our little hardscrabble farm was situated. As I stood next to Aunt Eva in the refreshingly chilled-air grocery, a respite from the sweltering heat of that area. I heard two ladies talking just a few feet away. One spoke in hushed tones. “Who is that child with Miss Eva?” One of them asked. I perked up to hear what they would say. “That child is son of Jesse Ellis Milton.” Silence. Then, a final note of qualification by the lady answering, “You know, Ellis Milton, he’s dead now, but he was part of the Milton family out in Walker. He was that World War Two ‘naval’ officer. You know, Ellis Milton, the drunkard. That is Mike Milton, the drunkard’s son.”
At that moment, a battle began to rage inside of me that would erupt into a full-blown existential crisis: my identity was “the drunkard’s son.”
Was my father a World War Two hero or the town drunk? Was I the son of a Merchant Mariner or the son of a notorious sinner? “I guess I am destined to the same life as my father,” I thought to myself in my childish and contorted logic. “This is who I am.”
As Jesus made His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem—a section in Matthew that we will address in Passion Week, Lord willing—our Lord entered an escalating conflict with the religious leaders there. He ended up turning over the money-changing tables in the Temple. He became indignant that some human beings, His own creation, were being excluded from the Temple, while the institution itself had been transformed into a wealthy club for the self-righteous. What followed is one of the most hopeful texts in all the world. Jesus told a parable about two sons, one who was disobedient, but later repented and did his father’s will. The other was dutifully obedient in his outward response, but failed to carry out his father’s will. The parable was intended for the religious leaders. When Jesus asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They [the chief priests and the elders] said, ‘The first.’” Jesus, then, says, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
Jesus’ “shout out” to the company of sinners in listening distance (a distance that has extended throughout the earth and throughout the ages) not only was an indictment of the smug religious leaders, but an extraordinary word of hope bringing dignity, a “future and a hope” Jeremiah 29:11) to those carried the stigma of their wrongdoing.
When we come to this text and ask, “What is God’s Word for us today in this extraordinary passage?” We might respond: Heaven is filled with a company of sinners, trophies of grace created by God out of portraits of pain.
How should we understand this? Now, we might put the question this way, “How will the Kingdom in Heaven—be filled? And the Sacred Text unveils, at least, two divine truths about who is in and who is out of the Kingdom of God.
The first divine truth about how heaven will be filled is this:
Heaven will be filled with those who are there not by position (vv. 23-27)
Jesus begins teaching a series of three parables, sometimes called the “Israel Parables.” Yet, in truth, the parables are for the entire Church. It teaches us who is in and who is out in the Kingdom. The parables come because of confrontation with religious leaders in the Temple. The first parable confronts the religious leaders about their misreading of John the Baptist. The parable of the Two Kinds of Sons follows. This parable is connected to the religious leaders’ rejection of John the Baptist and the reception of his message by the common people. Then, there is the parable The Parable of the Two Kinds of Farmers, which is about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Thirdly, there is a parable of Two Kinds of Wedding Guests, which is about the ministry of the Church.
The parable of the Two Kinds of Sons is triggered by the question of authority. The chief priests and the elders, the veritable keepers of the keys to the Temple—or if you prefer, the minister and session, the vicar and vestry, or the preacher and board of deacons—sought to stop Jesus in proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom by asking for his credentials. To be fair, it was God Himself who set up the system of the Church, with Prophet, Priest, and King motif of governance. Were the religious officials not justified in their question? Weren’t they doing their duty in asking to see his “badge?” Jesus’ response gives the answer to that question. He asked if they had recognized the authority of John the Baptist? How had they responded? By what authority did that man (the greatest man who ever lived, according to Jesus in Matthew 11:11-12) preach? By heaven or by man? Jesus’ question was characteristically (divinely) brilliant in its focus on the true power that constitutes the offices of the Church. The religious leaders felt trapped. They refused to answer. So, Jesus, too, withheld an answer and in effect rested His case: John the Baptist was sent from God and spoke as a prophet of God with the attestation that His words were grounded in the Scriptures and in the life of Jesus, whom He prophesied. His credentials were from God. The religious officials had the titles, but lacked the power. This is what Jesus was showing. His parable afterwards was intended to supply the story-telling punch to the gut. And it did.
The truth is that heaven will be filled with people who lacked the ostensible credentials for heaven; namely, a full life of holy living. No halos, no saintly works, and no miracles to speak of. There will be plenty there who were like the thief on the cross. Saved to Paradise in death while dying for his sins in life.
I once heard an Episcopal bishop say “There will be many surprises in heaven. Some will be there that we never expected to be there. But some will be missing from that Celestial home that we assumed were ‘sure bets.’”
Heaven is filled with a “Company of Sinners,” sinners saved by grace: whose sins were forgiven, whose lives were covered with the pure white life of Another; whose works, while not seen by the world were seen by God; and whose thoughts and motivations, while often tainted with the residual sin of the flesh, were sanctified by the Holy Spirit, redeemed by the power of the Gospel.
The other critical issue before us here is that we cannot enter heaven on our credentials for we really have none without God. The chief priests and elders did not have the power of the Holy Spirit and He is the only credential that we must have. A minister or an elder in the Presbyterian Church may be going to Hell with a title if he lacks the call of God, the Spirit of God, and the Son of God in his life. Conversely, backwoods preachers with no credential other than the anointing of the Holy Spirit will enter heaven before Popes and Kings.
Heaven is not a matter of position with Man, but possession by God. Don’t be fooled. Your only way to heaven is through the life of our Lord Jesus Christ: His Person, His Passion, His Resurrection and Ascension.
The second divine truth related to who is in and who is not is this:
Heaven will be filled with those who are there in spite of their past (28-31)
The parable of the Two Kinds of Sons illustrates the antecedent rabbinical questions and answers. That interchange established the thesis of Jesus: “One must be credentialed by the authority of God.” Thus, the authority by which He preached and taught in the Temple was, indeed, by the power of God, just like John the Baptist whom they rejected. The secondary proposition is applicable to all: the only way to go to heaven is by that same divine power, not by mere position. The parable not only underscores these truths, but introduces another poignant truth. The Kingdom of God will be filled with those who ostensibly appear to be out, but who are really in. The chief priests and elders were shoe-ins, right? Well, no. They were like the second son, in the parable, who told his father, dutifully, respectfully, “I go, Sir.” The word “Sir” in the Greek is the word Kyrie, or “Lord.” All the words were right. The attitude appeared correct. But even the religious leaders in their hardened hearts would have to confess that this boy did not do the “will” of his father. The first lad in the story was disobedient. He said, “I will not.” I must say that this son reminds me of the perplexing law clerk and copyist in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” If you have read that incredibly oblique short-story, you know that the depressing figure in the story, Bartleby, answers his employer, the Lawyer, who is the narrator of the story, by disobeying his instructions. His answer is “I prefer not to.” This act of “passive resistance” becomes the central issue of the story and “I prefer not to” becomes the rallying cry for individualism. The clerk, Bartleby, refuses to do any work but that which he desires. Despite being hated by old Turkey and the other employees, Bartleby is in some enigmatic way favored by his otherwise distraught employer, the Lawyer. In the end, poor Bartleby is arrested and thrown into prison where he dies. “I prefer not to” is a rather polite way of just saying, “I will do what I wish.” This is precisely the attitude of the first son. “Go work in the vineyard,” demands the father. “I prefer not to,” is his passive-resistant response. Yet, this son is said to have fulfilled his father’s will. How is that? It is because he quietly determined that he should do his father’s will. What she comes by his father’s love? She stricken with guilt for resistance to one who had given him so much? We are not given answers. The story leaves us asking such questions and focuses instead on the narrative. We must fill in the blanks. Thus, the Master Storyteller was in control. So, he, and not the second son, who appeared to be obedient, was the one justified in the story. Now, more importantly, is how Jesus explained the parable to the religious leaders. The chief priests and elders have not done their Father’s will. These disobedient sons rejected John the Baptist. The same despised Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus compares the wickedness and hypocrisy of the second son with the religious leaders. The piety of the first son in the parable is to give a voice to the most despised in society:
“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
The word for prostitutes in the Greek is a derivation of pornea. The word is used in everything from adultery to whoredom. Tax Collectors speaks of being a Benedict Arnold, a traitor, as well as a scam artist. These were the dishonorable, incorrigible rabble of a decidedly religious society. However, in the majestic grace of our Lord Jesus Christ these sinners became saints. And what is amazing is that they take their place in preeminence in heaven. The fact that Jesus says that they will come before the religious leaders did not mean that those hypocrites would gain heaven anyway. To the contrary, Jesus was saying, “Heaven will be a company of sinners, sinners saved by grace, who are before, higher, of greater station, that you.”
I cannot give any more hopeful word to you than this: that your relationship to God the Father is not impaired by the regrettable sins of your past, but by Spirit-wrought faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. His unblemished life is now yours. His sacrificial death is now yours. His resurrection is your resurrection to come.
Here is the thing: heaven will be filled with those who have a testimony of the grace of God, not the goodness of self. And that means if the tax collectors and prostitutes can be forgiven and welcomed into eternal life, so will you. You may have said, “I prefer not to” before. But now you can say, “Yes, my Lord. Yes. I follow You into the vineyard. Where shall I go?”
I will never forget the little Tabernacle that was built by the poorer members of our community just down the gravel road from our farm. Brother Devall was a plumber by day and a preacher by night. I preach in a robe, out of reverence for the office. Brother Devall preached out of his greasy overalls out of necessity. I consider him the holier man. His attire spoke of reverence for God by leaving the job site to go to preach. My Aunt Eva and I would walk up the gravel road on Wednesday evenings to hear Brother Devall preach. I have heard that “the smaller the town, the higher the hair” on ladies in some denominations. These ladies wore very long skirts and had very high hair! But, boy could they sing. They would sing “Blessed Assurance” like they believed it. Often, they would weep as they sang. There were accordions and guitars and tambourines and just a bit of whooping and hollering. It was a bit much for my Methodist-Episcopal-Church-South Aunt Eva and me. In fact, I always had a combination of fear and awe when we went to the Tabernacle, like standing before the great altar at Notre Dame. I had never seen folks like that before. I had never witnessed women who were so loud. But Aunt Eva would tell me, “Son, this is their way of worship. We must be respectful. We are guests. We have come for the Word of God and to pray for your Daddy.” And we did. And they did. Brother Devall would not only pray, but would visit my father, who was by that time in the last stages of alcohol’s deadly destiny. One evening, as the sun was setting on the silhouette of the piney woods, just the other side of our pasture, Aunt Eva went over to my father’s house, across the field. She said, “Come.” And he did follow. That night, the three of us, Aunt Eva, my Daddy, and I, strolled with Bibles in hand, down the land, past the swamp where I would catch bullfrogs, walking towards the golden glow of kerosene lights hanging in the Tabernacle. We sat together on those pine two-by-four-benches. The hymns were over. My father who was a violinist, a guitarist, and played harmonica was, no doubt, pleased by what he heard of the music. But he was undoubtably and absolutely gripped by a Sovereign God when he heard Brother Devall began to pray the pastoral prayer. I will never forget that night as my father fell on his knees in the sawdust of that Tabernacle. He was heaving tears and crying out to God to forgive him. Brother Devall left the little rough-hewn pulpit and made his way over to my Daddy. The entire congregation, maybe fifteen or twenty at the most, also moved towards our seat. Brother Devall laid his hands on my father’s head and on his shoulders. “There, there, Ellis. God knows. God knows.” And my father was saved; saved in the sawdust as I clung to his arm. He died within only a few months of that event. He had said to God as a boy, “I prefer not to.” But in the end, he said “yes” to the Father.
Some time later, in the Red and White grocery, I heard a lady say to another, “That is Mike Milton. You know, that drunkard Ellis Milton, who just died? That is his boy.” And I thought, “No, Ma’am. I am the son of a Veteran, a hero, and a Christian man of God.”
My beloved, you are not defined by your first answer, but by your final response to God. And your response to Him is a work of the Spirit. It is how God creates “trophies of grace from portraits of pain.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew : A Commentary. Rev. and expanded ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004.
Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales. New York,: Dix & Edwards; etc., 1856.
_____. Bartleby the Scrivener. Minneapolis: Indulgence Press, 2008.
Metzger, Bruce M. and United Bible Societies. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (3d Ed.). London, New York,: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Waits, Tom. Shiver Me Timbers. The Heart of Saturday Night: Asylum Records, 1974.
 Tom Waits, Shiver Me Timbers, The Heart of Saturday Night (Asylum Records, 1974).
 From the second line of Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers.”
 See Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew : A Commentary. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004).
Thus: “This string of parables, introduced by the Question of Jesus’ Authority, could be called ‘The People-of-God Parables.’ Because the Christian church has so persistently understood these parables as spoken against Israel and not against the church, I prefer not to call them “The Israel Parables,” for these stories apply to all the people of God, old and new. The parable trilogy contrasts the false and true people of God of all times, in an interesting chronology. Topically, the first parable centers on the ministry of John the Baptist, the second on the mission of Jesus the Son, and the third on the mission of Jesus’ church (Gundry, 432; Kingsbury, Story, 83)—John, Jesus, church. See Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28, Revised and Expanded Edition., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 369.
 For the textual variations in manuscripts, see Bruce M. Metzger and United Bible Societies., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (3d Ed.) (London, New York,: United Bible Societies, 1971), 55-56. Frederick Dale Bruner writes of these variants:
“The complicated textual situation in vv. 29–31 is thoroughly discussed in Metzger, 55–56, where we learn that the preferred order in the text is that of Codex S, where, as in most translations, (a) the first son says no but goes; (b) the second son says yes but does not go; and (c) the reply says the first son did the will of the father.” See Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28, Revised and Expanded Edition., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 374.
 See Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales (New York,: Dix & Edwards; etc., 1856); Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener (Minneapolis: Indulgence Press, 2008).
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 21:31.