19th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in abundance from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, dear friends in Christ, isn’t it just fascinating? How they just know what to say and when to say it? They are able to lead you down a line of argument and before you know it you don’t seem to have any other option than to agree. It’s just fascinating isn’t it? And many people find it to be just that. Many tv shows today exemplify this art and model their show after it. Some people see them doing a dream occupation and spend many years to pass the test and become one. Many wear classy suits and are usually on a very high pay scale. Isn’t it fascinating to watch a lawyer at work in a courtroom? Well, there is one rule of thumb that every lawyer knows well: Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. Never ask a question in which the answer is going to surprise you.
Well, today in our text we see a certain group of people. In the eyes of most people they were the elite. They knew just what to say and when to say it. They prided themselves in being model citizens and particularly model children of God. They held themselves up as the ideal to which every person ought to look up to, idealize, and strive to be. If you had an inquiry about God they were the ones to ask- they knew it all. When it came to the question of who’s a member of God’s kingdom, they felt they were definite shew ins. Not only did they claim to keep all of the laws of the OT, but they kept hundreds of additional laws that they made up as well to show how much they earned and deserved God’s favor. They were the chief priests, elders, teachers of the law, and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the religious elite. They had God figured out and were ready to go on the offensive against this imposter named Jesus who was taking away their popularity and teaching salvation not by man-made works and condemning their self-righteous ways.
It’s Tuesday of holy week. A few days before Jesus would be sentenced and put to death on a cross. So they came up to Jesus and asked him this question: Who gave you the authority to do these things that you’re doing? They thought they had Jesus figured out and thought they already knew what Jesus’ answer would be and they could move on to their next plan of attack against him. But instead of answering their question and playing into their game, Jesus used the opportunity to preach the law to them, show them their sins. He said, “Ok, I’ll ask you a question and if you answer it, I’ll answer your question. Did John the Baptist operate by his own authority or by God’s authority?” The chief priests and elders reasoned together and thought, “Hmm…if we say from God Jesus will ask us why we didn’t believe his message and if we say from men then we’ll have an angry mob on our hands because everyone except us believes John was a prophet from God.” So they said, “We don’t know.” So Jesus says, “Ok, then I won’t answer your question.” Then Jesus tells them this parable: (read text)
Which son did what the father wanted? Are you kidding? That’s the question! What an simple question to answer!! I mean it’s obvious! It’s simple! No one with half a brain could ever pick the second son, I mean, he obviously didn’t take his father’s directions to heart, didn’t give one wit about what his father wanted, spoke with his lips but never followed through, he disobeyed, the answer’s easy: the first one. Jesus asked the better question and he knew the answer. In saying, “The first one” the religious leaders condemned themselves. The first son was obedient, but the second was not. They were the lip-service-second-son. And Jesus made that clear.
They sat in the temple, in God’s house, and seemed to say all the right things. Yet, they rejected John’s message, they rejected Jesus’ message, and they didn’t get the message when the “worst” of sinners were listening and repenting! They were quick to claim God as their father, quick to show their allegiance to God, quick to claim they were Abraham’s sons, but all the while they ignored the fact that they were descendants of sinful Adam and Eve, that they needed a Savior, and they failed to recognize the Savior when he was standing right in front of them!
The answer was the first son. But why? At first glance it sure doesn’t seem like that son was all that obedient to his father. I mean, he flatly refused right? “I will not.” Boldly, unashamedly, blunt, rude. He shows no love for his father, doesn’t care what his father wants, and has no desire to please his father so he openly refused. But the difference between him and his brother is this: later he felt sorry, repented, came to his senses, changed his mind, realized his wrong attitude and action, and went and did what his father wanted. Tax collectors and prostitutes were considered the “worst” of sinners of Jesus’ day and the lowest social class. In fact, many in the religious realm felt there was no need to minister to them because they were a lost cause. It is important to note that Jesus is in no way commending their sinful behavior: Tax collectors who skimmed off the top, made tons of money by collecting way more than what was due in order to fill their own pockets and satisfy their greed. Jesus wasn’t commending prostitutes who treated their bodies with contempt and led others into sin and lust.
Jesus’ point is this: the first son is the representative of all those who repent of their sin. Every sinner who looks at the way they’ve been living and then looks at God’s commands and says, “I’m doomed. I’ve been acting exactly opposite of what God wants me to do! God should cast me out of his sight forever!” It’s this son who listens to the message of John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of God is near! Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins! Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Now produce fruits of repentance as the dearly loved children of God that you are!”
So, now the question each one of us has to ask is: Which son are you? Which son am I? Before we point our fingers we have to examine our own lives. Do we at times have an attitude similar to the lip service son? Can we think of times we’ve honored God with our lips but our hearts were far from him? Have we done the right things for the wrong reasons? Have we looked at others in our lives or in our world and whispered, “I thank you Lord that I’m not like them!” Have we been complacent in our spiritual lives thinking we’ve got it all figured out when we’ve got lots of room for growth? Have we come to church with the attitude that God should be so proud of us that we’ve given up our precious time for him, when really it us who needs to be restored and filled by God?
Or maybe at times we resemble more the first son: Have we at times known what God wants and in our hearts flatly refused, “I will not!” To forgive someone who’s wronged me? I will not! To give up my time and my resources for my family or my spouse? I will not? “What is it to me if people in foreign countries are dying without ever hearing about their Savior? What is it to me that there are people in Bemidji who have no regard for God because they have no understanding of Christ’s love? What is it to me?”
Ouch, right? Jesus’ parable hits home to each one of us. Instead of reforming us or making us better God took the lot of us, every sinner, every criminal and thief and every sexually immoral and put us all in one big lot and none of us deserves anything good from God or is any better than another. Instead of reforming us, God condemned us and said the “soul who sins is the one who will die.” Ouch.
Notice who took the initiative in the parable, it was the father. In God’s dealings with us God always takes the initiative, he always makes the first move. Notice also the terms the father uses to address his sons- in the Greek it’s actually “child” it’s a word that denotes tender love, compassion, and affection. It is always God’s tender love and compassion that He’s shown us that causes us to “have a change of mind” to repent and to trust in him for total and complete forgiveness. Yes, each one of us is the child who at many times didn’t do what God wanted us to do. But by God’s grace he has led us to see our sin and our need for a Savior.
So which of the two sons did what the Father wanted? Actually neither. The third Son of the parable did. The third son of the parable both said and did exactly what the father wanted. He did not hesitate to follow the father’s bidding and did exactly everything the father asked of him. The Father wanted the third Son to go into the vineyard, go into the world and be perfect and holy in every way. The Father wanted the third Son to suffer the punishment his brothers and sisters rightly deserved, and he did. The father wanted the third Son to give up his life as a ransom to buy back his brothers and sisters from their sin and he did. Do you see the third Son in the parable? The third Son was speaking this parable- it was Jesus! Jesus humbled Himself to work in the vineyard and humbled himself to be obedient to the Father in every way- obedient to death- even death on the cross. It was there on the cross where God the Father took the whole lot of sinful humanity including you and transferred your sins on to his own son who paid for them in full. It was there on the cross where God declared you innocent and not guilty. And God raises His Son Jesus from the dead to prove to you and me that Jesus has won the victory and is exalted to the highest place. Yes it is because of the third Son that God adopted disobedient children like you and me back into his family through faith. Which son did what the father wanted? Yes it was the third son, Jesus, and since Jesus did that in your place for you, God now looks at you and sees you as His own perfect and obedient child. Knowing that let’s do what our father wants. Amen.