Today’s Gospel lesson is very deep. There are so many connections and nuances that it almost makes the head spin. I know that some of you may question me about that. I mean, on the surface, this text looks absolutely straight forward; it looks like Jesus is telling us to be like the first son in the parable He told. Change your mind and do the work seems to be the main point, but if you connect the dots, I think you will see it is much, much more. I think you will see Jesus is calling us to something much, much deeper than simply doing the “will of the Father.” Jesus is calling for the complete transformation of our hearts. How so? Let me try and explain.
The text begins with the chief priests and elders coming to Jesus and asking Him a rather straight forward question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” This question is an important question because of two events that preceded this conversation. First, it was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Jesus entered Jerusalem in such a fashion to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah said long ago, “Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Anyone with any background in scripture knew the significance of Jesus riding in like this, and the chief priests and elders certainly knew their scripture. The second event followed: Jesus’ cleansing of the temple–casting out the money changers and overturning tables right and left shouting, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers.” Again, you would be hard pressed to miss the significance of this act. These are all actions of one who claims power and authority over earthly things and heavenly things. These are the actions of one claiming to be the Messiah. The chief priests and the elders want Jesus to come straight out and say this himself–probably so that they can trap him and arrest him.
But Jesus doesn’t fall into this trap. He doesn’t want to make things too easy for these folks. He wants them to face the facts. He wants them to face their own hearts–because, in the long run, he wants them to have a change of heart. I’ll get to the details of this in a minute, but please trust me for the moment. Therefore, Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own. “The baptism of John–[or the ministry of John the Baptist]–was it of divine origin or human origin?” This question is quite deeper than what it seems on the surface. Sure, the chief priests and elders give one facet: they say, “If we say of divine origin, he will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ but if we say of human origin, we risk angering the crowd because they believe John was a prophet.” This is the line of reasoning given, but Jesus is going deeper–much, much deeper. Why do I say that?
Let’s turn for a moment to Matthew chapter 3. This is the account of John the Baptist’s ministry, and we find some very significant things going on here. For brevity’s sake, I will not read the entire account which is found in verses 1 through 11. I will, however, hit the highlights for, you see, John’s proclamation was not simply repent and get your stuff together because the kingdom of heaven has come near. John’s proclamation was not simply start living your lives in a manner worthy of God. John’s proclamation was not simply repent or else. John pointed to the Messiah. 11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
And, of course, we know John was referring to Jesus. For in the next passage we have the baptism of Jesus where John flat it says, “14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John was pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus knew this. The chief priests and the elders knew it too, but they didn’t want to acknowledge it. They didn’t want to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, and if they acknowledged John’s ministry as having divine origin–that meant they would have to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus was effectively answering their question, and they didn’t like it. Not one bit. So they weaseled out of it.
“We don’t know,” they said.
And it’s not that they didn’t know. They knew, but they didn’t want it to be true. They didn’t want Jesus to be the Messiah because it would change their entire way of thinking and worshiping and acting. They didn’t want Jesus to be the Messiah because it would involve them losing power and control. They believed they were especially blessed and chosen by God to be in the positions they held. If John’s claims were true, then, they were in trouble. And they didn’t want to be in trouble. Deep down, they knew this, but they were comfortable where they were. They didn’t want to change. What do I mean by that?
Well, let’s continue on with what happens next and how Jesus continues to confront them. Jesus says, “Well, then if you won’t answer my question, then I won’t answer yours, but what do you think about this...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”; 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.”
Let’s stop right here a moment. Because I want you to have a very critical eye as you look at how the chief priests and the elders responded. I also want you to have a critical eye in how Jesus responds to their answer. Let me ask you this...does Jesus say they were correct? Read carefully.
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.
Does Jesus say they are right? No. No, he doesn’t. In fact, the reality is, both sons did not do the will of the father. In Matthew chapter five, during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught very clearly, “Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No. Anything else comes from the evil one.” In the first case, the word was No, Yes. In the second case, the word was Yes, No. Neither one is the will of the Father. The will of the Father is Yes, Yes. Yes, I will do your bidding. Yes, I do your bidding. This is what every parent dreams of his or her child. It is the same dream God has for us.
You see, when John the Baptist proclaimed the message that the kingdom of heaven was near and the Messiah was soon to arrive, this hit the tax collectors and prostitutes where they lived. They knew they were sinful. They knew they were broken. They knew their lives were not in accordance to the will of God, and they were remorseful. This is perhaps a better way to translate the Greek for “changed one’s mind.” The Greek gives the nuance of remorseful to the point of changing one’s heart. The tax collectors and the prostitutes knew they were broken and knew they needed to change. Jesus says, in effect, that this knowledge gives them the inside track to entrance into the kingdom.
But the chief priests and the scribes have no such remorse. They have no such change of heart. Why? Well, they don’t believe they need a savior. They don’t believe they need a Messiah. Yes, it would be nice if such a person came and threw off the Roman empire, but as far as their relationship with God was concerned, the chief priests and elders thought they were just fine–thank you. They believed they were sitting pretty and were on God’s good side. They believed God was pleased with them and their work and their position. They had no clue of their own brokenness. They had no clue of their own separation from God. They thought they were doing God’s will, and they had no remorse for anything. Their hearts were hardened. Why?
Well, think about it for a moment: if you think you are accomplishing all of God’s works–if you think you are living the right life–if you think you are moral and upright–why in the world do you even need God? Why even worship God? Why even kneel before Him in humility if you can carry out His every command? If I can carry out all of God’s commands, well then, I must be a pretty good person. I must be favored by God. I must have status and worth, and if anyone else doesn’t follow those commands, then I am better than them. They are beneath me. Do you see the train of thought? Do you see how this develops? And if those people are beneath me, God must not like them very much. They aren’t worthy of God’s attention, so they aren’t worthy of my attention either. I don’t have to care for them. I don’t have to love them. I don’t have to have any sympathy or compassion for them. And now, do you see how we have progressed to the point where the chief priests and the scribes have now become Yes/No children? By thinking they follow God’s laws perfectly, they actually begin to break them. And they don’t even realize they are doing it. Hence Jesus says, “Even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before you because they heard John’s message and they had a change of heart. Your heart’s stay the same and are unchanged. They are not remorseful, and if you knew the Messiah was coming and was now here–if you believed and trusted John’s message–they would be.”
Do you now see how layered and nuanced this passage is? Do you now see how the webs are interwoven? And can you begin to see the application for our own lives? I mean, of course, we need to be people who are yes/yes people. We need to be people who tell God, “Yes!” when He calls us as well as be “Yes” people in our doing. There’s no doubt about that! But how often do we do such things? How often are we Yes/Yes people or even No/No people? How often do we accept God’s direction and then carry it out or be courageous enough to say No/No? Be honest with yourself and with me this morning. Be brutally honest.
The reality is we tend to be like either one of those two sons. We tend to fall short of what we know we should do. Most of us know we should be kind to each other, but we fail to do so. Most of us know we should hold our tongues when it comes to talking about the actions of another person–yet we talk about them anyway. Most of us know we should attend church more regularly and put God ahead of our recreational activities, but we don’t. Most of us know we could and should be more generous, but we aren’t. And the list goes on. We tend to be yes/no or no/yes people who are driven by fear and guilt and anxiety. We know we don’t get it right.
Ah, but there was one who did get it right. There was one who did answer Yes and then follow through. There was one who understood the will of the Father, and by His wounds, we are healed.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.
Yes, it’s all about Jesus here. It’s all about the Son who completely did the Father’s will. Who took on the mission of reconciling the world unto God; who faced temptation; who faced trial and tribulation; who faced suffering and death; who faced God’s wrath and abandonment; so that we wouldn’t have to. Who took the payment we deserved and gave us the payment He deserved. Who clothed us with His righteousness as He took our sinfulness upon Himself. Who did so when we did not deserve it.
And when we hear what Jesus has done for us, what does it do? When we trust in what Jesus did for us on that cross reconciling us to God–what does that do to our hearts and minds? It changes them. It helps us break free of arrogance. It helps us break out of self-pity. It allows us to be remorseful for what we have done and continue to do while being secure that God’s love does not leave us. And to the extent we trust what God has done, it begins to change our lives. As our hearts become more and more trusting of His grace and mercy, we find ourselves saying Yes and then following through as we truly do the will of God. Amen.