“Which Am I Today?”
Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So much of Jesus’ teaching occurs during Holy Week. So many consequential and influential things are said and done in the last five days of Jesus earthly life. And in the three days following His death as well. Of course, nothing about Jesus is inconsequential, but there’s a reason that the Gospel writers devote so much of their writing to this important week. Nearly half of John’s Gospel is written about these eight days. And here in Matthew, almost a third of the content comes following the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Not that you’d know it from today’s Gospel lesson, since it’s not specified, but this interaction with the Pharisees occurs on the Tuesday of Holy Week. It may have been the busiest day of Jesus’ whole ministry as He confronts the leaders of the Jews.
The phrase “poke the bear” came up in two totally unrelated conversations this week. One was discussing the total absurdity of actually poking a real bear if you came upon one in the woods. The other was in relation to a conversation someone was having with their sister. The two hadn’t been seeing eye to eye, and after a long phone conversation, the one got a text from a third sister, who must have immediately heard something negative from the other one. Her question was, “Did you poke the bear?” Apparently, the conversation had stirred up some feelings that were now being unloaded on the third sister. It seems like poking the bear is exactly what Jesus is attempting to do. He certainly could have let the sleeping bear of the Pharisees and Sauducess, and the chief priests and elders lie, as is generally the best course of action. But instead, knowing that it was necessary for them to be riled up enough to send Him to the cross, it seems Jesus has no choice but to poke the bear.
He could have avoided the temple, but that’s exactly where He goes. Just the day before he’d flipped over the tables of the money changers and called the place a den of robbers. And here he is the next morning teaching within those very same walls. No wonder “the chief priest and the elders of the people came to Him” and said, “By what authority are you doing these things…and who gave you this authority.” Given that this week would have been the most profitable week of the entire year for those who were doing their business in the temple, Jesus’ actions would have been like shutting down a shopping mall the week before Christmas. The chief priests wouldn’t have been the ones doing the money changing or selling the merchandise, but they would have received a cut of the profits, so their own livelihood is being challenged.
When they ask John the Baptist, By what authority are you doing these things? and when they ask Jesus, “And who gave you this authority?,” what the chief priests are really saying is, “We didn’t authorize you to do what you’re doing, so who do you think you are coming in here and doing these things?” Jesus’ response is perfect for the situation. He responds with a question that would either force them to acknowledge the authority John had been given from heaven, or to admit that they were afraid of the people, who held John to be a prophet. But Jesus’ question is really meant to call these men to repentance. It’s an invitation for them to believe in Him as the Messiah. It’s His last-ditch effort to call them to repentance and faith, which then sets up the parable that follows.
As we heard, “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” Matthew is the only one to record this parable. It’s clear as the story plays out that the two sons are representative of two groups in Israel. The first son corresponds to the penitent tax collectors and prostitutes, while the second son represents the Pharisees, chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law, who all refused to heed the preaching of John the Baptist. And who all are now decidedly against Jesus. The contrast between the two groups being made here is two-fold. It’s about what they say, and what they do. So, let’s examine how the parable unfolds.
It’s the father who goes to his sons and not the other way around. This is a reminder to us that God always takes the initiative in His relationship with us. And that what we say and what we do is always a response to what God has said and done. Note also that there’s a sense of urgency in the father’s tone. “Go and work in the vineyard today.” It’s a strong reiteration of the warning from the Psalmist that “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” The first son hears his father’s voice and his reply is abrupt and disrespectful. Basically, he says to his father, I don’t want to. I’m not going to do it. But then he changes his mind and goes to work in the vineyard. It’s significant that the Greek word for repent, metanoia, is literally translated as to change your mind. This is precisely one of the things that has the Jewish leaders so agitated. Their words and actions indicate that they don’t believe that this change of mind, this repentance, should allow tax collectors, prostitutes, and all other types of sinners, to enjoy the same blessings of God as they do. It’s often our problem too. Comparing our own sins to those of others.
A pastor was called to see a man who was dying of a terrible disease. In his youth, the man had received good Christian training, but later he turned his back on the church. The pastor shared with him the Words of our merciful God, which are able to save every repentant sinner. The man received the pardoning grace of God and fell asleep in Jesus. Since the man was well-known in the community, a prominent member of the church came to the pastor shortly before the funeral and said to him, “Pastor, you’re not going to bury that good for nothing scoundrel, are you?” The pastor replied, “You mean brother John Smith? Certainly, I am going to bury him.” To which the “good church member” replied, “Well if he went to heaven, I don’t want to go there.” What the church member had forgotten is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And that, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” These are the very same things that the Pharisees were missing. For them it was all about keeping the law.
The second son is much more respectful than his brother. He jumps right up at the sound of his father’s voice and says, “I go, sir.” Here the Greek is also significant, as the word for sir is the very same word that is translated as Lord. Here we’re reminded of Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount when He says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” This son who eagerly pays lip service to his father is the one who fails to follow through on his promise and do the one thing he’s been asked.
Jesus then asks the question, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The answer to that question involves obedience, or doing, but it’s not a doing that can be separated from faith. The commendation of the tax collectors and the prostitutes is a result of their hearing and believing. The condemnation of the others is because they did not repent and believe. The doing is simply the natural response to the repentance and faith that hears and believes in the saving power of the work of Jesus. Believing in what God’s done for us through His son on the cross and through the Holy Spirit’s constant call to repentance and faith is only rightly responded to with action. For the first son, that action was to go out to the field and work. What is it for you? Martin Luther says that faith is “a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” How will your faith be living, busy, active, and mighty today and this week?
I think if we’re honest with ourselves, there are some days we’re eager to serve, but don’t follow through. And other days we’d rather not but are convinced and strengthened to do the right thing. As followers of Christ who seek to do the will of our Heavenly Father, we need to remember that above all the will of our Father is to believe in Him. Repent of our failures, and trust in the saving power of the blood of Christ. And that is what strengthens us for action. There’s a prayer in the service of communion of the sick and homebound which asks that God would grant His servants both he desire and the will to spend their days as obedient children, trusting in His goodness and remembering with thankfulness His mercies, which are new every morning. And that’s my prayer for you today.
Heavenly Father, grant these Your servants both he desire and the will to spend their lives in service to You, trusting in Your goodness, shown in Your Son Jesus Christ and remembering with thankfulness Your mercies, which are new every morning. Through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.