“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. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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. Matt. 21:28-32
“What do you think?” Jesus is a most remarkable teacher. What strikes me most about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t demand their obedience – he doesn’t lay down the rules – he doesn’t dictate their actions – he doesn’t give them the answer. He invites them to think with him.
And the question he asks is so common sense, the right answer so obvious, that we are a little disarmed. This doesn’t take a theologian to figure out. I don’t need some special education to know the right answer.
Exactly. What we try to make so complicated, Jesus makes so simple. We try to muddle the issues with “what if this?” and “did you think about that?” Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter and asks, “What do you think?”
It seems a simple question, but is it really? What seems sophomoric to his sophisticated audience of chief priests and elders there in the Temple courts, catches them right between the eyes.
Let’s think along with Jesus this morning –
A father has two sons. Each is commanded to go to work in the vineyard today. The first answers “No,” but later changes his mind and goes. The second answers “Yes,” but never does what he promised. Jesus asks us, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Before we answer – we might want to note that neither of the sons is completely obedient. Both fall short. The truly obedient son would have answered “Yes” and then gone immediately to work in the vineyard. Neither of them can claim perfect obedience.
Let’s start with the second son – he is a young man who will tell you whatever you want to hear. His answer is always “yes.” He’s behind you, you can count on him, he’s loyal to the end. But is he?
Have you ever met someone who “talks a good game,” but that’s about all they do, is talk? I have. Jesus did.
· They may have the best of intentions when they tell you yes, but they just never get around to it.
· Or he may never mean to do it at all and just tells you yes to get you off his back.
· I know some folks who have convinced themselves that obedience is wrapped up in the words – that “Yes” itself is all that is required.
The first son – I’ve known more than a few of these as well. “No, get someone else. I’m not interested. I’ve got more important things to do.”
· If that’s where it ended, then God’s displeasure would burn against them. Rebellion and sin always provoke God’s anger and punishment.
· Sometimes, though, the one who says “no” takes time to reflect and realizes that he has done wrong and has a change of heart, and then moves to do what was asked – obey what was commanded. The Bible calls this repentance.
· Repentance is more than just feeling badly because you’ve done wrong – but with your actions doing differently. Repentance cannot end at feelings of remorse or guilt, but must move through that to a change of life.
So, who is it who has done what the father has asked him to do? The answer is – the first. Though he began disobediently by saying “No,” his change of heart was followed by the response of obedient action – he went and worked. The second son, despite his answer of “Yes” – regardless of how good his intentions might have been, disobeyed the father by not doing what he asked. It’s as simple as that.
If Jesus had left it at that, it would have been a powerful lesson. But Jesus always has a way of driving his point home.
Those religious people – vs. 23 – “the chief priests and elders” had gotten the right answer – but they hadn’t gotten the right answer. They still felt smug and superior in their super-religiosity and self-righteousness.
Let’s follow Jesus as he brings it home to them – Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.” (Mt 21:31-32)
Unbelievable – the very people who should have recognized and responded to Jesus – the religious, righteous people – they rejected him. They rejected his message, they questioned his motives, they denied his claims. They had (at least externally) always said “Yes” to God. But now, the moment of truth has come – the Messiah, the Son of God has arrived – and their plans are to put him to death.
The tax collectors and prostitutes – if anyone had ever said “No” to God, it was them. By the wickedness of their lives and hearts, they had put themselves crosswise with everything God had commanded. They stood outside of the religious community of faith. They were despised and alienated by the good people – the kind of people Jesus was talking to.
Remarkably – these people who had always said “No” to God were flocking to the Messiah. They were responding to his message, they were leaving their sin behind them, they were shedding their old lives of disobedience and rebellion and receiving God’s blessing. They, more than anyone, realized their own unrighteousness, their own undeserved-ness. But perhaps because of that, they appreciated even more the gracious gift of mercy that had been given them.
Now, who stands at odds with God? “And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” They are so strapped to their old thinking, their self-righteousness, their rules and regulations, that they have long ago left God out of their lives – they cannot see, they cannot hear. Will they change? Not a chance.
Is Jesus’ message lost on them? Not at all – vs. 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.
Now, if we go away feeling smug because we aren’t like those priests and Pharisees, maybe we need to read the parable again, ourselves. If this stays an interesting conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment – an historical footnote in Jesus’ ministry – it has missed its mark. Its mark is your heart and my heart.
As long as I use someone else as my standard of righteousness, I can always find someone who is doing worse than I am. Lots of people say “No” to God, while I sit here, Sunday after Sunday in my padded pew, saying “Yes” to God. Man, I feel comfortable.
But funny thing – I go to church, get excited about being a Christian, think about some of the things I ought to be doing, how I’m going to have to change some of the ways I’ve been living – but I go home, and by the time lunch is over, I’ve forgotten what the big fuss was all about. I won’t worry about it until next Sunday.
And so we go – Sunday to Sunday – weekly doses of religion – just enough to make us feel better than the next guy – but it never really changes our lives. A personal relationship with God? A life-changing dose of repentance? Not likely. In fact, like an inoculation against a disease, the little doses of religion we subject ourselves to act to immunize us from getting a full blown case of following Jesus.
Let me ask you Jesus’ question again, “What do you think?” For Jesus’ listeners, learning was never merely a spectator sport – he taught, they listened. They were drawn into the discussion – they were made participants. And not only were they drawn into the learning – the learning was not complete with the correct answer. There is always something to do, a way of life to change, an action to begin. It is not until their lives have been changed that the lesson is complete.
Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
James 1:22-25 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it - he will be blessed in what he does.
We’ve talked about Moses, Elijah, Jonah, Peter and Paul. But it’s time to talk about you and me.
Look into your heart this morning, not the fellow’s you think you’re doing better than. Ask yourself, what answer have you really given to the Father? I know you’ve said “Yes” – but have you gone to the vineyard to work?
Perhaps for too long, you have been saying “No” to God, or “Later,” or “I’ll think about it.” This morning God calls you to the vineyard. Don’t tell him no. It’s not too late, but the hour is coming, sooner than we expect, when it will be. Don’t put off your decision to step out of your life of No, into a life of Yes. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and go to work.
I’m sure every dad has played the game with their kids – Jump, I’ll catch you. I built bunk beds when our kids were little, and I’m sure from the top bunk it looked like a long ways down to the floor. And they would stand on the top and I’d hold out my hands and say “Jump, I’ll catch you.” And they’d start and stop and finally lunge off the bunk into my arms, squealing with delight. And then, we’d do it again and again, until I wouldn’t even have to tell them – they knew I would catch them. Part of our problem with not trusting God is that we haven’t jumped often enough to figure out that he will always be there to catch us.
One father made the same plea to his young son who was trapped in their burning house. The two-story structure was engulfed in flames, and the family was on its way out, when the youngest boy panicked and ran back upstairs. At the bedroom window the boy appeared, with smoke billowing out around him, and the father shouted, “Jump, I’ll catch you.” The boy cried out, “But daddy, I can’t see you.” “I know,” his father called out to him, “but I can see you.” Even though the son couldn’t see his father, his father could see him – and that’s all that mattered.
That really is all that matters – that you trust God enough to say “yes” to him - not knowing where it might take you, what he might ask you to do, but knowing that he will always be with you.