Sermon notes 09-27-20                      Actions, Attitudes and Words        Pastor David King

            [Matthew 21:23-32] And when [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” [24] Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. [25] The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ [26] But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” [27] So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

            [28] “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ [29] And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. [30] And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. [31] Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. [32] For 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” (ESV)

In recent weeks we have been exploring together a section of Matthew’s Gospel that includes several of the parables of Jesus.  Parables are stories that Jesus uses to illustrate a teaching point or a lesson that he is trying to get across.  A couple of weeks ago we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant; last week we heard the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

The story Lois read to us this morning is known as the parable of the two sons.  In this parable Jesus tells a story about the response of two sons to the will of their father.  One son initially rejects the father’s will, but later changes his mind and does what the father asks of him.  The second son claims to do the will of the father, but then he does not do what the father asks.  The parable contrasts the tax collectors and prostitutes who accepted the message taught by John the Baptist with the “religious” people who did not accept John’s message.  In the telling of this parable Jesus criticizes the chief priests and elders who considered themselves righteous and thought they did not need to repent; while Jesus commends the tax collectors and prostitutes who accepted the message of John the Baptist and repented of their sins.

The larger question this parable poses for all of us is how we respond to the message of Jesus.  In the response of one of the two sons in the parable, we are likely to see our own response to Jesus … which is somewhat troubling, because even though one son ultimately responds better than the other, neither son in this parable responds perfectly.  And I think we would agree that none of us can say we have responded perfectly to Jesus.  At some time or other our actions, attitudes and words have fallen short of responding worthily to our Lord.  We have not acted worthily, we have had an attitude of disobedience, our words have been mere lip service to doing the will of God.  So the question I want us to think about this morning is, how do we respond to Jesus, in our actions, in our attitudes, in our words?

I believe the answer depends on what we believe about our need for Jesus, and on whom we believe him to be.  If this sounds somewhat familiar to you, there is a good reason for that.  You may remember our Gospel passage a few weeks ago where Jesus asked the disciples who they said he was.  We said that is the most important question we will ever answer: who do you say Jesus is?  Our passage today reminds us of why that question is important: Our answer determines our response to Jesus.

As we take a closer look at the parable of the two sons let’s first consider the background of the passage.  Jesus has irritated the religious leaders, as we know he was often prone to do.  The religious leaders were the chief priests and the elders, and Jesus made them mad this particular time by driving the moneychangers and the merchants out of the Temple (which was described earlier in this same chapter, Matthew 21).  Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple directly challenges the authority of the chief priests and elders to govern the Temple activities themselves.  They don’t appreciate this challenge, so they confront Jesus by asking him where he gets his authority.

The chief priests and the elders claim to be highly religious authorities themselves, yet with all their religion, they fail to recognize that Jesus has been authorized by God to do what he is doing.  So they ask Jesus where he gets off thinking he has authority.

Notice that the religious leaders unwittingly turn his question around on Jesus.  Jesus had earlier asked his disciples that most important question, who do you think I am?  The chief priests and elders essentially ask Jesus, who do you think you are?  Where do you get off taking this authority upon yourself?

Jesus does not answer their question directly, but instead he asks them a question of his own that they respond to in a very political way.  Jesus asks them what they think of John the Baptist, whether John was divinely sent from heaven, or was he acting on his own?  Jesus knows that the elders and chief priests will be very concerned about the response of the people to their answer.  He has them in a dilemma, a quandary, a Catch-22.

We should remember that before they opposed Jesus, the religious leaders had also opposed John the Baptist.  When the leaders came out to see John in the wilderness, John, who was not much of a diplomat, called them a brood of vipers.  John eventually lost his life for challenging the authority of another leader of Israel, King Herod.  The common people, however, believed that John was a prophet sent by God, so the chief priests and elders were afraid to say in front of the people that John was acting on his own.  Yet if they said John was divinely sent from heaven, they would have to explain why they didn’t believe John.  These religious leaders couldn’t very well say they rejected someone who was sent from God.  So the chief priests and elders take the politically safe position of saying … they don’t know.  They offer only empty words.  So Jesus exposes them by telling this parable, the parable of the two sons.  In the parable, a father asks two of his sons to go work in his vineyard.  The first son says he will not do it, but later he changes his mind and does it.  The second son says he willgo to work in the vineyard, but then he does not do it.

Jesus asks the elders and chief priests which of the two sons in the parable did the will of their father.  This time the priests and elders have no trouble answering the question.  It is obvious even to them that, although both sons said one thing and did another, the response of the one who repented and did what he ought to have done was preferable to the one who was a hypocrite because he did not do what he said he would do.  The chief priests and elders answer correctly, but they don’t realize they have implicated themselves.  The second son in the parable represents them.

These religious leaders gave every outward appearance of saying yes to God, but their hearts were estranged from God.  They implied that they did the will of God, but they had an attitude of disobedience, because they refused to believe in the One whom God sent.  Their disbelief was hardened by their jealousy of Jesus.  Their primary concern was preserving their own power and authority.

So if the second son represents the chief priests and elders, to whom was Jesus referring with his depiction of the first son in the parable, the one who started out saying no, but later repented and became obedient to his father’s will?

The first son represents all people who are initially sinners, but who realize their sinfulness and their need for repentance, and come to believe in Jesus. We know that throughout the Gospels, the religious leaders often criticized Jesus for associating with sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes. Religious folks looked down on such persons.  But Jesus depicts the first son as being like the tax collectors and prostitutes who, at first, went astray, but then repented and believed.  They were the ones who in the end did God’s will.

The two groups of people represented by the two sons in Jesus’ parable still exist today.  I am sure we have all observed them.  There are those whose profession of faith is much better than their practice of faith.  Their actions do not reflect their words.

And then perhaps we have all known people whose actions are far better than their professions of faith. They can look and sound rebellious and tough on the outside, but we might observe that they do kind and generous things, almost in secret.

We should acknowledge again that neither of the two sons in the parable behaved ideally. The son who obeyed in the end responded far better than the other son who simply gave “lip service.” But an ideal son would be one who responded favorably to the father’s orders without question, and cheerfully carried them out.  An important message of this parable is that none of us have responded perfectly to Jesus. We have all failed either to profess our faith in Jesus, or to act on what we have professed, or both.  Jesus wants us not only to profess him with our words, but also to act on what we profess, not just give the appearance of being a Christian, but to do what we know a follower of Christ should do.

As I bring this toward a close I want you to notice the very last thing that Jesus says to the religious leaders.  He tells them they were at fault in not believing in whom God sent, and then he says, “even when you saw it;” that is, even when you realized the truth that it was God who sent John, “you did not afterwards change your minds and believe him.”   Some translations of the Bible quote Jesus as saying, “even when you saw the truth you did not afterwards repent and believe him.”

That word repentance is something that both John the Baptist and Jesus emphasized.  In fact, if we go back to chapters 3 and 4 of Matthew’s Gospel, we find that the very first words that John and Jesus each preached were these identical words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  In our passage today, Jesus tells the religious leaders that the tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before them because they repented of their sins and believed.

Friends, repentance is an unavoidable necessity for all who want to enter the kingdom of God.  But too often we can be like the chief priests and elders, too proud to admit we are living in sin and that we need a Savior.

Sometimes we need to face the truth that sin is sin.  The greater fault of the religious leaders in this passage was not their original failure to believe but the failure to change their minds once they were faced with the truth. The religious leaders were too proud to respond to John the Baptist or to Jesus as they should have.  They thought of themselves as religiously upright, and they were too proud to respond in repentance.

In the same way, the failure to repent is the greater fault for all of us who have fallen short, who have failed to believe, or have failed to act on what we believe.

But I want you to hear this good news: our God is the God of second chances.  The first son in the parable took advantage of a second chance.  He took the opportunity to change his mind.  He represents the tax collectors and prostitutes who responded by facing the truth of their sinfulness with repentance.

And what about us?  We could ask ourselves the same question about Jesus that Jesus asked the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist.  That is, do we believe that Jesus was sent by God, or is he some human invention?  If he were some human invention, we would be without hope, but because we know he is the Son of God, we claim his promise that the kingdom of heaven is at hand for all who repent and believe.  Thanks be to God.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.