Bible Passage: Matthew 21:28-32
Pastor: Pastor Schlicht
Sermon Date: October 1. 2017
Honest, authentic, genuine, real. We hear those words a lot today, don’t we? Those words are flattering adjectives, in our culture. They are the types of words that sell. Think about it: People don’t want to buy a cheeseburger; they want authentic Wisconsin cheese on real beef. It might not be any different, but it sure sounds better. We don’t want leather boots; we want genuine leather boots. People don’t just buy ice tea, they buy Honest Tea. (That’s not just a bad pun, it is a real brand.) These adjectives which speak to truthfulness work because, as a society, we want, desperately, to have something true! In a way, it is quite ironic, that in a culture of moral relativity nothing is more absolute than the desire for what is true. It could be that we’re sick of being lied to, that’s happened too many times. It could be that we each have a pretty good ability to tell when someone is being fake and it really bothers us. It could be that we don’t trust much of anything anymore. Or it could be that being true is a quality of our God, a quality that was carved into our hearts when he created us in his image. Because the desire for what is true is not just an American thing, but it is also of utmost importance in the Kingdom of God. There the King is true and so are his children. That’s what we are going to explore today in Jesus’ parable of the Two Sons from Matthew 21.
This parable was told during Holy Week in Jerusalem. Jesus had already ridden into the city amid shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” just as Zechariah foretold (Zec 9:9). He had already turned over the money-changers’ tables and cleansed the temple as David prophesied (Ps 69:9). He had already publicly healed many blind and lame who came to him, as Isaiah had promised (Is 61:1-2). Everywhere he went in Jerusalem, people were amazed at his power and authority. They began to whisper that special word, Messiah. “Could this truly be the One?”
The religious leaders of the day, of course, didn’t even allow themselves to consider that possibility. They were too worried about their own authority over the people being undermined. They had a running conflict going with this Jesus, this unstart from Nazareth, for three years already and now here he was in Jerusalem being called the Messiah even by little children. This was getting out of hand. So the chief priests and the elders approached Jesus on Tuesday of Holy Week, while he was teaching in the Temple courts, and the conversation gets tense. They asked Jesus, “Where do you get the authority to do all this?” And he responded with a similarity loaded question, “Well, where did John the Baptist get his authority?” The chief priests and elders wanted to say that John had no authority, but they knew that the crowds would become angry for they all believed that John was a prophet sent from God. (Which he was.) But if they said that John’s authority was from the Father, Jesus would simply ask, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” So they were forced into a humiliating answer, “We don’t know.”
This was quite the confrontation. Think about the scene here a little. Jerusalem is packed during the week of Passover with thousands of visiting pilgrims who had come to make sacrifices. Usually, at 25,000, the Holy City could swell to ten times its normal population during the Passover celebration. 250,000 people in an area smaller than Epic’s campus in Verona. Add to this the fact, that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were the most respected leaders in all of Israel. And here they are squaring off with the prophet from Nazareth in public debate in the most crowded place in the city: the temple courts. This was a very public, high profile, high stakes type of confrontation. And Jesus had just bested them at their own game on their own home court. The tension must have been palpable.
And that’s when Jesus decides to tell a parable. “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. He came to the second and said the same thing. The second son answered, ‘I will go, sir,’ but he did not go. It’s such a simple story. Two sons, two different responses and two different actions. And Jesus then asks priests and elders. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They couldn’t answer the question about John the Baptist, but this one was too easy. Neither son was a good example, but only one had done what his Father asked of him. They said to him, “The first.” And the moment they answered, they indicted themselves. Jesus said to them, “Amen I tell you: The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, but you did not believe him. However, the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him. Even when you saw this, you did not change your mind and believe him.” Ouch. The truth hurts sometimes, doesn’t it? But they were the ones who had answered the question and so they couldn’t argue. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Amen!” He’s saying, “You said it yourself, the first son who said “No” to his Father but then changed his mind and went to work is better than the second son who lied to the Father and didn’t work in the vineyard.”
You see it might have seemed like an odd question, but that’s why Jesus brought up John the Baptist before. The religious leaders didn’t believe John even though his message was actually from the Father. But you know who did believe him? Those nasty tax collectors and dirty prostitutes, the type of people the religious elite despised. Those sinners repented of their sin and trusted in God. Their lives changed as a result, but the elders and priests still didn’t blink an eye. Jesus knew that unless they believed John they wouldn’t believe him. After all, Jesus was the focus of John’s preaching. John said about Jesus, “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!…I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One (John 1:29,34).” If those religious leaders hadn’t accepted John’s authority they certainly weren’t going to accept Jesus as the Son of God. No matter how true his words were, no matter how undeniable his miracles, no matter the fact that he had fulfilled every single Messianic prophecy of the Old Testament. They couldn’t admit the truth when it was literally standing in front of them.
That’s why they are the second son. To all the world it may seem like they said “yes” to God, but they weren’t actually listening to the Father. They looked religious, they sounded religious, they even smelled religious, from all their sacrifices. They went to the temple every day and said, “Yes, Father! Yes, sir.” But it was empty talk. They didn’t repent of their sin, they didn’t have compassion on the weak, they didn’t love their neighbor, they didn’t trust in God for their salvation. They had convinced everyone else, even themselves, that they were obedient sons of the Father, but they were lying to God.
The truth hurts sometimes, doesn’t it? Whenever I study these accounts, I love cheering for Jesus when he trounces over the pious elders and exposes their lies. And then, usually a few days into my study and prayer, it happens. Like a sucker-punch to the stomach, I realize that Jesus is talking to my heart as well. It’s hard to practice all I preach and it’s difficult to admit that sometimes I’m not presenting God with a living sacrifice but simply with lip service. That’s when the truth hurts. It hurts to realize that none of us have been honest with our Father.
How many times do we sing, pray, and nod our head here in church, saying “Yes, Father. Yes, Sir!” but then go home and not actually do what our Father wants? We say we believe in the Word of God as the means of grace through which the Holy Spirit gives us power and strength beyond measure. We cherish prayer as a real conversation with the Almighty Lord, an unparalleled privilege. But then we go home and these things become an impractical use of time and something that gets shoved to the side. We want to quit an addiction and promise to change but then refuse to get an accountability partner or get the professional help we need to recover. We know that lust and body image are things we struggle with and yet we wake up in the morning and look at Instagram and Snapchat seeking the very people we should avoid. We agree that gossip is a sin, but it doesn’t bother us when we speak with our friends. We know that all our possessions belong to God and he has asked for our first fruits, but when it comes to actually giving offerings, his ministry becomes far from first place. We know that kindness and gentleness are virtues that Jesus commanded his children to possess, and yet we pride ourselves on our sarcasm, wit, and our ability to find flaws in others. The truth hurts. Because the truth is that we are all sometimes that second son. We have all lied to God.
And that should be arresting because God is nothing, if not true. Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” This is God’s nature. He cannot lie. He always follows through; he always is true. And in his kingdom, he does not accept any liars. When we lie, we aren’t acting like his children, we’re acting like someone else. Jesus spoke about that someone else when he said, “There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).” Satan is the father of lies. He enticed sin into this world through a lie that deceived Adam and Eve and drew them away from God (Genesis 3:1-4). He was the first liar and ever since the garden he has been working to multiply the lies, around us and inside us (1 John 5:19). With the Devil tempting us to lie and a holy God, who is true to his Word, demanding just payment for our dishonesty, our situation is terrifying.
But just like Jesus’ other parables we’ve looked at, the more deeply you think about our King’s attributes, the more you realize that they are not terrifying, but actually, the reason we have to rejoice. So yes, our King is true and we aren’t. That is a frightening reality. But, on the other hand, our King is true! And he cannot lie. So every Word he has spoken cannot fail. Every statue, every promise all true, beyond doubt. “I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).” That cannot be anything but true. How do we know? Well, how about this promise: “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).” God was true to his Word and sent his Son, the very one who spoke this parable. Jesus, who came to Jerusalem to die and rise again, is the third Son who both answered “Yes” to his Father and followed through. As Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).” He also said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32). His life and death free us from our own falsehood and failure. How about this great promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9).” God says that because of Jesus’ sacrifice it would be untrue of him to not forgive us! God is bound by his own Word and his own nature. God is true; that fact transforms, through Christ, from the most terrifying reality we can think of into the greatest comfort we will ever know. God is true; that is the only hope we have and the only hope we need for eternal life. God is true; that is the highest joy we can comprehend and the greatest strength we can possess.
That’s really why those prostitutes and tax collectors repented and turned their lives around. They didn’t do it out of earthly practicality or ease. Prostitutes didn’t have any life waiting for them if they stopped prostituting in the first century. Women got into that line of work for the same reason they do today: necessity. But so much more than our day, there was tremendous shame and guilt heaped on these women. Forgiveness from God? The elders wouldn’t imagine such a thing! And tax collectors? They were the enemy. A traitor to the jews and still a Hebrew runt to the Romans. They made their money by fleecing their own people through raising taxes. Forgiveness? The Pharisees had only one place in mind for these dishonest dealers. They had no life waiting for them outside of the money they made from their dishonesty. And yet, these tax collectors and prostitutes were baptized in repentance because they knew, through the Spirit’s power, that John’s words were true. They knew that in Christ they were free from shame, guilt, and hate. No matter what anyone else thought of them, no matter how much the religious teachers condemned them, they knew that in God’s eyes they were his true children. And their lives changed. They turned away from dishonesty. They stopped standing on the street corners. Not because it made their lives easier, but because they finally possessed the truth. And the truth had set them free.
And that’s how we will be true to God as well. In the light of his truth, we are empowered to be true when we repent. Jesus prayed to the Father and said, “Your Word is truth. Sanctify them by the truth.” Do you want to know how to follow through on your promises? You want to repent and actually be true to God? The answer is, focus on the fact that God is true. When you go home today, say to the Devil, “No, I’m not going to let you rationalize this sin. My God is true to me. He loves me and I want to follow his Word.” Say to that addiction, “I will not fall for your temptation because the truth has set me free.” Say to that friend who wants you to lead you away from a sanctified life, “I can’t lie to you, anymore. I don’t want to do this because my God has been true to me.” Did you know that Matthew, the one who wrote this Gospel himself was a former tax collector? One of the twelve disciples and an author inspired to write the very Word of God. If that doesn’t give you confidence in the Gospel truth and its power to change hearts, I don’t know what will. Brothers and Sisters, you don’t need to buy products that promise authenticity to have what is true. Repent and then rejoice, because your King is true and, in Christ, so are you.