Sermon: Which son are you? (Matthew 21:23-32)

Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost / Proper 21, Series A
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are often told that the parables of Jesus demonstrate that he was a marvellously storyteller. The parables are not really designed to entertain us, but to get us to think. The parable in our Gospel reading this morning reminds me of a common occurrence in my household involving my two sons. It will be time for dinner, and I’ll call the boys to come sit down and eat. One of them will joyfully come to the table and patiently sit. The other boy will refuse to come to the table at all. He only arrives at the table with much wailing and physical resistance. But then, once the dinner is actually served, the boy who came to the table will cheerfully and without hesitation refuse to actually eat his dinner, while the boy who was only brought to the table kicking and screaming, eagerly gobbles his food up. One put on a show of listening, the other changed his mind. In a similar fashion, Jesus tells the chief priests and the elders a parable about two sons. This parable is intended to demonstrate both the religious leaders spiritual shortcomings, and also their need for repentance.

Jesus’ Authority Challenged

To see the point of this parable, we need to understand the occasion upon which Jesus told it. In our text it’s Tuesday of Holy Week. A few days before Jesus had walked into the Temple and had acted as though he owned the place. Here he was, a country boy from Galilee, coming to the big city. He walked into its holiest shrine, which had been ruled for centuries by the chief priests. And, for a moment, he took it over. He turned the tables and drove out the money changers. Who did he think he was? The only person who might conceivably have greater authority in the Temple than the high priest was God’s anointed king, the Messiah. So here was Jesus behaving as though he had the right to do what only the Messiah could do. The chief priests and elders of the people, the guardians and stewards of the religious institutions and traditions of Israel were challenging Jesus’ authority: “Who do you think you are?!”

Jesus responds to their question by asking one of his own. Our Lord wasn’t being evasive. His counter question was really the answer to their inquisition. He wants them to decide whether John’s ministry came from God or from men. He knew they dare not say that John the Baptist was a man sent from God. If they admitted that John was a prophet, Jesus would have reminded them of John’s testimony. John proclaimed him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). If they acknowledged that John was a prophet, they must acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah.

In a moment he has exposed their hearts. Immediately, they’re trapped. They’re faced with a dilemma: either they condemn themselves, as having rejected God’s prophet, or they risk the anger of the crowds who believed that John was a prophet. This exposes their hearts because it shows that they were not interested in the truth, but only in what would preserve their own reputation and influence. The reality was that they didn’t believe in John any more than they believed in Jesus, because they did not want to repent. Their problem was not intellectual, but moral; not ignorance, but arrogance. They refused to accept the evidence that was set before their very eyes, because they were rebels against the authority of God.

Since he has made this penetrating exposé of their unrepentant hearts, Jesus now tells a parable to hammer the point home. A man has two sons. He has a request, an invitation really, for both of them. The father tenderly asks his sons to work in his vineyard that day. The invitation is stated in the same way to both young men. The first son replies with a flat-out “No.” He will not go and work. Later on, he changes his mind and goes to work in the vineyard. The second son responds to his father’s request, by saying, “I’ll go.” The son acts like he respects his father’s word and makes it sound like he is willing to carry it out. Only, he doesn’t. Jesus tells us he never got to the vineyard. He has empty words.

Are you the son with the empty words?

The second son, who politely tells his father he will indeed go to work, but then doesn’t, stands for the religious leaders. Like the agreeable and respectful second son, the Jewish leaders appeared to be doing what was right in God’s eyes. But appearances can be deceiving. The leaders never got around to doing the work of the Father. As Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” (John 6:29). They look as though they’re doing God’s will, worshipping in the Temple and keeping up appearances; but they refused to believe in John’s message. Here were the people who professed allegiance to God, and who called themselves his servants. Yet, they do not want to repent and they also do not believe in the Messiah. The leaders didn’t repent at John’s preaching. When Jesus calls them to repent of their sins, their love of position and pride took first place. They are full of empty words. Christ has come into the world to do the Father’s will. But these people are not really interested in doing his will at all. Their religion was serving themselves, for their own purposes and their own status.

Sad to say, we shouldn’t be surprised to see those same symptoms in some of today’s Christian leaders. There are those who are commissioned to be teachers of God’s truth and pastors of his people who openly violate God’s commands and reject his authority clearly laid down for us in Scripture. But being an elder, or on church council, or in the choir, or being a pastor, or a seminary professor, or a regional pastor, does not grant freedom to reject Jesus’ words of warning and judgment. You don’t get to choose whether or not you repent and trust in Jesus. You don’t get to decide if you should obey or not.

But in case we are tempted only to look at others, let us also have ears to hear ourselves. What son are you? Are you the second son? If we are prepared to listen, to think and to take Jesus seriously we may find such symptoms in our own hearts. Let it not be said of us ‘even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him’. So here’s the penetrating question: are you the second son? Are you the son with nothing but empty words and religious platitudes? Are you the one who is refusing to repent and trust in Jesus because you don’t like what God has commanded? Are you the one who is simply putting on a show of Christianity for the sake of the approval of others? Are you the second son?

Are you the son who repents and believes?

What about the first son? The first son, who rudely tells his father he doesn’t feel like working today, but then does after all, he stands for the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Their daily life seemed to be saying ‘No’ to God; but when they heard the preaching of John they repented. When John preached sin and grace to them, they repented and went to work in the Lord’s vineyard. So, Jesus declares that tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of religious people who refuse to repent. Notice that the unlikeliest of people come to Jesus: tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, the no good, the least, the lost, the lowly. With the Lord Jesus Christ there is always a chance to repent and believe. Anyone may come: everyone who is burdened and heavy leaden. Jesus has the authority and the willingness to forgive and restore anyone who repents. That means we need to encourage others to repent. We need to hold the door wide open, even for the very chief of sinners.

So, that’s the question: which son are you? Are you the first son? When you hear God’s Word proclaimed do you repent and believe? This is what Christianity is all about. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely willing to forgive sinners who repent. It doesn’t matter at all what you might have done or used to be in the past. Do you repent? Do you trust in Christ? If you do, then everything old has passed away and everything has become new again! It doesn’t matter how great and self-confident your profession of religion may be. Do you repent of your sins? Do you trust that the only reason why God has accepted you is because Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who came down from heaven to die upon the Cross and pay what you owe God? Are you by daily contrition and repentance drowning and putting to death all sins and evil desires? If not, your profession may be nothing but empty words in God’s sight, and you might still be under the curse of sin. But, take courage! If you have been a great sinner, repent and believe in Jesus, for he is a greater saviour, and in his shed blood there is hope for you yet! You have this promise: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9). That word will never fail.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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