Monday, September 29, 2008
Text: Matthew 21:28-32
by Matt Kennedy
The gospel lesson this morning is a parable. We need to recognize that at the outset. Some this week, I suppose they were reading ahead, found Jesus' story disconcerting. So, what's the point? Is Jesus saying that its fine and good to disrespect your parents so long as you end up doing what they say? No. It's a parable. It has nothing to do with parent-child relationships. It's important to correctly identify the type of literature or form or speech employed in a given biblical passage before you begin to interpret and apply it.
The characters in parables are representative characters. The father and the two sons and the vineyard don't represent fathers and sons and vineyards. They are types or symbols of other things.
To understand what things we've got to look at the context, to back up and figure out where Jesus is and who he's speaking too.
In verse 23 you'll see that Jesus is in the temple courts and is challenged by the chief priests (the high priest and others from leading priestly families) and the elders (members of the Sanhedrin). “"By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?"
Why would they question his authority?
Jerusalem is in chaos. The day before, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, hailed as Messiah, the coming king. Immediately after passing through the city gates he entered the temple, not like most did, as a pilgrim, in humility and fear with sacrifices for his sins, not with reverence for priest and levite. He entered like a lion. He came with a whip, driving out those who exchanged Roman coin for temple coins, overturning their tables, because they were money-changing at extortionary rates and they'd set up their tables in precisely the area of the temple set aside for God-fearing Gentiles, barring the way.
Who do you think authorized the money-changers to be where they were and to do what they did? The high priest and the elders. So when Jesus overturned the money-changing tables, he also overturned their authority.
So, the next day, the same day he tells our parable, the chief priests and elders question his authority to do what he did? Jesus answers their question with a question with a question “If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?"(25) This is a trap. If they say John's baptism was from heaven they'll condemn themselves because they opposed John and rejected his baptism; but neither can they say from “men” because the already hyped up crowds, loved John, consider him a martyr.
Who here can tell me what John's baptism was for? Repentance. John called every Israelite to repent of their sins. Why did the chief priests and elders and Pharisees reject this call? Because they believed they had nothing to repent of. Repentance is for sinners, tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes not for them. The moment John implicated them along with the rest of the people, the moment he extended his call to them, was the moment they rejected his baptism.
Now notice, and this is why it's important to pay careful attention to context, Jesus also mentions John the Baptist in verse 32 in this morning's gospel. He says, “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
So two references to John's baptism, to repentance, stand like bookends at either side of our parable. What does that tell you? It means that our parable is not about fathers and sons but about repentance.
Now, let's go a little deeper. Notice what Jesus says in verse 27. When the elders and chief priests answer his question about the origin of John's baptism with: “"We don't know." Jesus says "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” The implication is that Jesus' ministry shares the same origin as that of John. If the elders and priests had said, “it comes from heaven” then they would have been in tight spot, not only because John identified Jesus as the messiah. Acknowledging John's Baptism came from heaven, would also acknowledge Jesus as king. That would mean he acted in the temple with the full warrant of heaven and that they must Repent and follow him.
So by the time we get to our parable Jesus has put the chief priests and elders in a very tight spot. They can't dispute his authority without disputing John the Baptist's authority and inciting the crowds. But since they can't dispute Jesus' authority, his actions and words stand and their own authority is undermined. At the same time, since they refuse to question the validity of John's baptism of repentance, they're rejection of that baptism as well as Jesus' own ministry comes to the fore. People in the crowd, most of whom had been baptized by John, would be asking themselves: What do they mean they “don't know” whether John's baptism came from heaven? Why didn't our chief priests and elders repent get baptised by John?
That's the context of this parable. And now I think we can begin to figure out who the characters represent. Who is the Father? God. That's easy. The father has two sons we are told in verse 28. What does the father call his sons to do? “'Son,” he says to the first son, “go and work today in the vineyard.” The same call is repeated in verse 30 to the second son. What do you think that call represents? That's what John called Israel too isn't it? He came, Jesus says in 32, to “show you the way of righteousness.” God's people, you and I included, are called to leave our old lives characterized by sin and disobedience and live lives marked by Love for God that bears fruit in obedience. That is the call. It's not simply to agree with a set of doctrines and moral standards in our minds, but to devote ourselves, commit ourselves, surrender ourselves to God in our hearts and that surrender is made manifest in a life marked by a desire for obedience to his commands born of love.
So the father says to the first son. “Go work in my vineyard.” What does this first son do? Verse 29: “'I will not,' he answered,” Now this story is being told in the first century, before the age of Oprah. Children, in first century Jewish families, even adult children, never said “no” to their parents. So the next thing they would anticipate is the father's wrath--some sort of retribution.
Now who in Jesus’ world seems to deserve God’s punishment? Who are those who deserve, in the eyes of the obedient Jew, the wrath of God? The prostitutes, tax collectors, the adulterers, the drunkards, those living lives that say “no” to the Father. In the eyes of the law and of society deserve God’s wrath and, it is true that if they persisted in this “no” wrath would surely come.
But here it doesn't. The son says no and the father does nothing which would be unthinkable for a first century father, but this father does not immediately punish. He seems to know something about this first son. What does this son do? “Later” we're told “he changed his mind and went.”(29)
Notice that the son not only changes his mind, he not only adopts a new attitude, his change of mind leads to a change in behavior. He does what his father commands him to do. This is the picture of repentance isn't it? Repentance is not just being sorry. You can be sorry and keep right on doing what you are doing. Hey, I'm going to do this even though it is wrong because “God knows I'll say I'm sorry afterwards” ...No. Repentance is a change of heart that leads to a change of behavior.
What’s the point? Who are the ones who repent? Who are the ones who come to Jesus? The sinners, the adulterers. They're the ones lived the first part of their lives saying "No" to the Father. But now now, they've changed their minds, their hearts have been moved. They've left their old lives and lifestyles behind for Jesus. They once said no, but now they say and they do yes.
Every follower of Jesus Christ must be found in this first son. To follow Christ requires that you repent of your sins and commit to do what he calls you to do. That's what it means to call Jesus Lord and if you call him Lord but refuse, then you honor him with your lips but your heart is far from him. We are those who once said no to the father and yet through the grace of God, our hearts have been changed from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, and now we say yes. Even when we fall, we fall in the vineyard and get back up and by his grace get back up and follow.
But what about the other son? Verse 30: “He answered, 'I will, sir,' The second son answers in precisely the way he must. “Yes sir. I will go.” Yes sir. I will be your servant. I will work in your vineyard. I will love you and follow your commands. I will do what you say. “But” Jesus says, “he did not go.” He said the right words. He had the outward form of obedience but he had a rebellious heart that manifested itself in his refusal go to the vineyard. That's precisely what the high priests and elders and teachers of the law and the Pharisees did. Whitewashed tombs he called them in chapter 23. They look good on the outside but inside they're full of dead men's bones. They said all the right things and performed all the necessary acts to be seen as saying “yes” to the Father, but behind the closed door of their hearts and in the secrecy of their minds and in the unseen private world of their non-public deeds, they said no. But unlike the first son, they had no change of mind, no change of heart. They chose the facade over the truth, superficiality over authenticity, reputation over repentance.
The second son is the picture of hypocrisy. He trusts in his good works. He trusts in his church affiliation. He trusts in the fact that water was poured over his head. He trusts in his service to the poor. He trusts in the salvation card he signed at billy graham, he trusts in his right belief but he does not trust in Jesus Christ. His heart is uncircumcised. He remains unchanged. And the outward things he does serve only to persuade him that he doesn't need to go to the Jordan and because He won't pass through the Jordan he'll never get to the vineyard.
Repentance is a change of heart that leads to a change in behavior. All too often people think that just one of those will suffice. Some think being saved is thinking the right thoughts about Jesus. Others think beings saved is doing good things with Jesus' name on their lips. True repentance that leads to life is marked by a love for Jesus Christ that leads to a hatred of sin and a desire to be free of it that results, through grace, in a life marked increasingly by obedience. That's life in the vineyard.
Application and prayer