Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Don’t you hate it when people say one thing and do another? We all know people, who for any other reason are probably great people, but for whatever reason sometimes say they’ll do something but then never wind up doing it. I myself am a shining example of this, but I can probably speak for most men – and wives, you can tell me if this is right or not. There’s a joke that goes like this: If a man says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it; there’s no need to remind him every six months. So we hate this trait in other people, and it can really set you off. But what happens when it turns out that we are the ones saying we’re going to do something, but then don’t actually do it? In the text the Jewish leaders question Jesus by what authority He is working. He responds in part by telling them the Parable of the Two Sons. Today we pray that like in the first son, the living and active word of God would work in us to lead us to repentance and a faith that reaches out.
Jesus begins the parable, “’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.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’” (vv. 28-31a) In the text today we’ve moved into Holy Week. Almost all of our Gospel readings for the rest of the church year will fall into this time period. The events in today’s text would be on Monday. The day before was the day of the Triumphal Entry. Crowds of people gathered to spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road before Him. Then Jesus headed to the temple where He drove out all who were buying and selling the temple. He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (v. 13)
The next day as Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him with a question as He was teaching. These are the folks who were in charge of keeping the temple and worship in order. Jesus overturned their apple cart the day before, so they are probably hot under the collar. We begin to see here and in the next few chapters a more concentrated push between the Jewish leaders and Jesus. He didn’t quite fit into their paradigm of the Messiah, and yet they couldn’t deny that He was doing some miraculous things. They ask Him by what authority that He is doing all of these things. But when He asked them in return where John’s baptism was from, those who were so in the know were suddenly out of the loop.
Jesus illustrates their refusal to accept the preaching of John, the preaching of repentance and faith in Jesus as the Messiah, with this parable of two sons. There’s a man who has two sons. He goes to the first and tells him to go and work the vineyard. He at first refuses, but later is brought to repentance and goes to work. The second son was told the same. He assured his father he would go and work, but he did not go. Jesus identifies the second son with the Jewish authorities. These are the ones who were more concerned with image, outward praise without inward renewal. Jesus spoke rightly of them, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isa. 29:13) How many times do God’s people in the Old Testament promise to follow God’s Word and then don’t?
Jesus shows in the parable, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) The leaders admit this by saying it was the first son that did the will of the father, not the second; though they did not realize until later that Jesus was speaking about them. (v. 45) It was not the one who paid lip service, who said he was going to work that was the true son, but it turned out that it was the one who had fully intended not to work but then repented that was the true son. He heard the word of his father, repented of his unwillingness to work, and took up the task his father gave him.
Today we are observing our annual mission festival. In just a little while we are having a communal meal and donating the money to benefit those around us in need. But still, there’s yet a lesson to be learned. We hate those who say one thing and do another; it’s so irritating. But what happens when we are the ones? We gather here to worship every Sunday, to abundantly receive God’s free gift of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. In the words of Holy Absolution you receive the forgiveness of sins from Jesus Himself. Here we are strengthened in the promise of eternal life. And yet so often we let our offerings on Sunday be the extent of our work. Don’t get me wrong, giving offering regularly is fantastic. Scripture even says that God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor. 9:7) But a lot of the time we are tempted to take the back seat, to let others lead the way. We convince ourselves that others are better at everything than we are, and we don’t realize that each of us has gifts from God. They may be different gifts, but they should all be used to the glory of God.
Jesus continues, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 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.” (vv. 31b-32) Jesus said that the tax collectors and prostitutes, the worst of the worst sinners, go ahead of the Jewish authorities in the kingdom of God. This is because they heard the Word of God, they were convicted by His Law, and repented of their sins. Instead of focusing on outward appearance and maintaining the status quo, they realized that they are sinners. They knew that there is no way they could’ve lived up to God’s demands. And they knew that they were among those for whom Christ took upon human flesh, lived the perfect life and fulfilled God’s Law, suffered and died for.
In the same way we are sinners. We come to church and say we are going to do one thing, but then often don’t do it. We usually mean it honestly and with the best intentions, but our sinfulness gets hold of us and we don’t follow through. We break God’s Law and deserve to be punished like rest. St. Paul writes, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6, 8) While we are sinners, and would much rather sit back and not do anything, Jesus Christ died for us. He took our sin, our complacency, and nailed it to the cross, and He left it there. When Jesus rose He left the grave empty, and so has our slate been made completely clean. When we hear the Word of God and repent of our sins, we truly are made clean, washed white in the blood of the Lamb.
Romans 7 says that we are now, “released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.” (7:6) This morning we gathered here as sinners. But soon we will leave as saints. You received in Holy Absolution the forgiveness of Jesus Christ Himself. And in just a few moments you will come to the altar to receive the very body and blood of Jesus to strengthen and preserve you in the true faith and the forgiveness of sins. By this precious meal, you are strengthened and led by the Holy Spirit to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Be strong and courageous, for God is with you. We pray that He would continue to convict us of our reluctance to live according to His Word, that He would strengthen us with His forgiveness, and lead us to serve those around us with His love.