September 25, 2005 Matthew 21:28-32
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ”‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, 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, 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.
Are you Ready to Work in the Vineyard?
I have never worked in a vineyard. The closest experience I might have to it is picking cherry tomatoes in my backyard. Something tells me that as far as the manual labor would be concerned, it couldn’t be a lot of fun. The sun would most likely be beating down on you, as you would have to meticulously walk from plant to plant - picking the grapes off of each vine without ruining the vine. Then, you would have to carry the vines back to the vat. After a time, the very smell of the grapes and the feel of them would probably make you noxious. Your legs, arms, shoulders and fingers would wear down from the day to day grind.
In the parable for today, the man with two sons had a vineyard that he wanted them to work in. No doubt, they had been brought up in the family business, and they knew the work involved in it. Although the pay may have been very acceptable, the work in order to get the pay would require a tremendous sacrifice. Whereas they may not have wanted the business that their father had worked so hard to establish to go to naught, the commitment involved would not just be a temporary thing. Just like a farmer or a restaurant owner in today’s world, it would involve a lifetime’s worth of sacrifice and not a whole lot of free time.
When God calls His creation to be His children through faith - this is no easy task. It is not a part time job where we serve in God’s army as the National Guard’s “weekend warriors.” In Matthew 10 Jesus made this clear.
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Anyone who reads the Bible can see very clearly that doesn’t call us to an easy life of service in the “vineyard”. God’s Word talks of sacrifice, undivided attention, and absolute commitment to His words and His ways.
The two sons understood this in the parable. Therefore, the one son - understanding the commitment that working in the vineyard involved, was honest with his father. He plainly said, “I won’t.” Jesus compared this son with the prostitutes and the tax collectors. Anybody with any sort of a conscience in their society knew that these two “professions” were disgusting. The one sold the body for money, the other sold honesty for money. It was a blatantly immoral way to get the almighty dollars. The only other way would be through an honest day’s wages, which was a lot harder and more difficult. Knowing this, at some time in their life they said, “I don’t care. Life is much easier if I just do it this way. If anyone wants to judge me for my lifestyle, that’s their problem, not mine.” The tax collectors and prostitutes represented both sides of the spectrum - one living in the filth of life with a disinterest in “godly living,” while the other lived in the high money of society with a similar disinterest in “godly living.” They were both blatant in their rejection of God’s will. They knew what God wanted them to do, and they basically said, “nope, I’m not going to live that way.”
A part of me thinks, “even though their lifestyles are despicable, at least they’re honest about it.” “What! How can I say such a thing!”, you ask? It’s because I’m frustrated. Frustrated with myself, my congregation, this world of Christians - as we try to talk Christianity down to a National Guard mentality - a weekend warrior kind of thing. We talk so much in sermons about persecution, trials, and all of the things we go through here in America - and a part of us loves to jump on the recent hurricanes and talk about how rough we have it. All the while we go back to our air conditioned homes, watch our big screen TV’s and enjoy our café latte’s at the local Starbucks. So with a tinge of guilt we send ten dollars down to New Orleans and pat ourselves on the back for having “made the sacrifice.” We do these little things to try and convince ourselves that we’re really giving all we can - as “good Christians”.
Think about it though - when push comes to shove - how much are we honestly sacrificing and living our Christian lives willing to give up family, friends, and even lives for Jesus? When it comes time to get up an hour earlier for a Bible study on Sunday morning, oh, that’s just too difficult on my day off? Our young adults come to the front of the congregation and make a commitment to stay faithful to the point of death, they get a confirmation certificate and a new dress, and all the while they complained about how long confirmation was and how much work it took to sit through a class? So we congratulate them for that? When they get into high school they still come to worship, yet during the week some of them sleep around with all kinds of people prior to marriage. If you’re going to sleep around - why not just be blatant about it and charge or pay for it? In the end, if you do it for free, you end up being worse than the prostitute. We talk about growing in faith, but we don’t take time to read our Bibles at night? We talk about sacrifice, but we don’t even give one percent of our income to the Lord? If you don’t want to make the commitment, why not be honest about it? Why not just put on the high heels of the prostitute or get in the booth of the tax collector, instead of putting on the name of Christ and still playing the part of the prostitute and the greedy tax collector?
This attitude is somewhat portrayed in the second son. How did he respond? He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. But I believe the second son is somewhat different - because Jesus is using it as a reference to the Chief Priests, elders, Pharisees and what not. These guys were not lukewarm in their effort. You couldn’t say that they weren’t shy about doing difficult things. It’s not as if these guys were openly immoral in their lifestyles. These guys were all wrapped up in law after law after law - wearing specific robes and tassles and nit-picking with one another over how many steps they took on a Sabbath and whether it was ok to rescue a donkey from a ditch or heal someone. They gave their ten percent. They never ate pork or drank alcohol. These guys were ALL ABOUT commitment. So their response to the “call” to the kingdom was literally, “egw - kyrie!” That means, “I, Lord!” Egw is where we get the English word “ego” from - they were very egotistical people - they were full of themselves.
Yet in the end, what did the Lord say about them? They did not go. How could Jesus say that of them? Jesus explained by saying, “John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” Notice specifically what Jesus said - John came NOT as the NIV says to teach you the way of righteousness - but IN THE WAY of righteousness. That designates a key difference to me that could be misleading. You could misinterpret the first translation to think that the Pharisees just didn’t want to do the things that John told them to do. Perhaps you would interpret Jesus to be saying that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law didn’t want to eat locusts and wild honey and they didn’t want to give up their positions. You would look at that and say that they were rejected because of their lack of commitment. That wasn’t why they were rejected - they made the commitment. They were rejected because they DIDN’T BELIEVE JOHN - who came in the way of righteousness.
John came in the way of righteousness. What way was that? Look at his lifestyle. Look at his words. They simply dripped and wreaked of repentance. There’s no other way you can read him. Here he was, born special - of Zechariah and Elizabeth - a miracle baby and child of a priest! Here he was predicted by Malachi - who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. In spite of this, he didn’t live in the temple, he lived in the desert. He didn’t have people cater nice foods to him. He ate locusts and wild honey. He didn’t wear robes. He wore camel’s hair. Why? To show the people by his lifestyle that HE was nothing special. Instead when the people came to him, what was his simple message?
Luke 3:15-18 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
John’s simple message in his baptism and his lifestyle was repent and believe that Jesus - the Savior has come. The problem with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law was not that they weren’t willing to sacrifice. It was that they weren’t willing to repent. They didn’t like John’s way.
Commitment is an integral part of our religion. Jesus demands commitment - a willingness to sacrifice the self for the Lord. But that is not the core of entry into the kingdom of God. It is the result of entry into the kingdom of God. The KEY to entry into the kingdom of God is the way of John - which is REPENTANCE and FAITH. This is a key difference. Unless you understand this key difference - you will end up like the second son. We can complain all we want about how people aren’t committed to Christ today - acting like prostitutes and tax collectors. Turn on any religious channel and they’ll decry the nude and XXX joints in society, along with every other vice. They’ll decry the type of Christianity that likes to flavor these things and still call themselves Christians. That’s fine. But what is there solution? “If you really want to make it into the kingdom of God - you need to make the commitment to Christ right now. Come forward. Take that step! Make that commitment!” They will point you to yourself - to make your commitment to change your life and start being what they call a “committed Christian.” Make that decision to stop living the lifestyle of the prostitute and tax collector and start living right!
What’s wrong with that? Do you see the progress that this can lead to? What is a truly committed Christian then? How do I know I’m really committed? This is where the system starts up - ways in which every “Christian” wants to prove to himself that he really is committed. So I’ll do it by going to church three times a week unlike those uncommitted one time a week Christians. I’ll read my Bible two hours a night instead of leaving it dusty on the shelf. I’ll tithe while those other heathens only give three percent. If I backslide, I’ll get re-baptized and “really dedicate” my life to Christ this time. There was a time that the Pharisees and Tax collectors actually went out for baptism from John. Why? Because they wanted to associate themselves with what the people thought of as a man dedicated to the Lord. But what did John say to them?
Matthew 3:7-12 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
To John - the key to salvation was not commitment, but repentance. They were trying to eat their dessert before they had the main course.
You would think that someone who was willing to walk around in long robes all day, only walk a certain number of feet per Saturday, and refrain from all kinds of food and drink, would be willing to simply say “I’m sorry and I believe.” Why was this such a difficult chore for the Pharisees and Sadducees? Because it’s not just a matter of what you say. It’s not just a matter of what you do - like a change in lifestyle. The way of righteousness that John was preaching and living had to do with humility - with saying, “I am nothing but a miserable sinner - unworthy to even tie the shoes of Jesus.” Would the Pharisees be willing to say that? No way! Such a statement would put them below Jesus. Repentance - at it’s core - puts us at an equal status with the prostitutes and tax collectors of the world. It admits with Paul that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) It admits with David that “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) It admits with John that “we were under control of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19) It admits with Isaiah that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” The core of repentance means being willing to admit that no matter how many commitments I make, no matter how much I try to live the “Christian” life and say “I Lord”, I am still at my core an unworthy sinner who has not met up to what God has demanded me to do. When you are truly repentant you don’t even think about standing before the holy God with your mouth open, telling him about how you committed to this or that - because when put comes to shove - you always fail. You will never ever enter the kingdom of righteousness that way. That’s what makes this way so difficult for the people who claim to be so committed to Christ. John’s way says, “you’re all naked. You’re all damned. You’re all sinners. If you want to enter this kingdom, you have to give up your position as high and mighty and look at yourself as a naked sinner.”
It’s as we stand before God then, nakedly exposed with all of our sins and weaknesses, that John takes entrance into God’s kingdom of righteousness to the next level. John announced to the world in John 1:29 “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” His message didn’t end with “repent you stinking sinners”, but “look at the Lamb of God - who takes away your sins.” As you stand before God nakedly exposed - willing to admit you are nothing but sin and flesh - John tells you that your sin has been put on Jesus - the Lamb of God - who has been blamed for your sins. The beauty of John’s way of righteousness is that he doesn’t leave us naked - he clothes us in Christ. He puts our sins on the cross, and crucifies our shame. He takes the memory of our sin and buries it in the grave of Jesus. The beauty of John’s baptism was not in any commitment that people were making to Christ, but in the forgiveness that he was offering in the future sacrifice of Christ. The righteousness of Christ makes all of us - prostitutes, tax collectors, Pharisees or Sadducees - holy through the same blood of Christ. It puts us on a level playing field righteously as well also. Even as a pastor I can’t make any more claim to heaven than you - since we’re both saved by the same grace of God in Christ.
Jesus told the Pharisees basically, “you are not entering the kingdom since ‘you did not believe him.’ They didn’t believe John when he said that repentance and faith in Jesus was the way into the kingdom. They wanted to take the commitment way. They wanted to work in the vineyard without being officially hired by the Owner. That is not the way in. As Paul told the Romans in Romans 3:28, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
I guess the key question to you this morning is, “how have you been approaching Christ?” Has it been like the prostitutes, tax collectors, Pharisees or Sadducees? Where are you coming from? Why are you here? How do you know?
1. Well, if you want to use your name as a “forgiven Christian” as an excuse to keep on sinning, I would call you a dishonest heathen. If you plan on leaving this house and continuing in the same lazy or sinful lifestyle you’ve been in, you’re only being dishonest with yourself and dishonest with God. You’re like the prostitute or tax collector who said, “no, I won’t.” That’s where you’re at - NO FURTHER.
2. Or maybe - did you come here to show your commitment to God - to convince yourself that you’re really here to live a Christian life and separate yourself from the world? Did you come here hoping that by doing so you would be able to separate yourself from the sinful world and really show God that you were ready to work in his kingdom? If you think that you are making yourself more worthy of the kingdom because of your sexual control or your generosity in giving, then I would also be concerned. You sound like the second son who all too readily said, “I will.”
3. But if as a prim and proper Pharisee or even a disgusting prostitute - you’ve been led to dig your head in shame over the things you’ve done, over your arrogance or your blatantly sinful past - if you’ve prayed to the Lord to forgive you - and honestly sought his help in overcoming your sins, chances are, God has made you recovering prostitute or tax collector. The key question is however not based on your sorrow. The key question is, do you believe the way of righteousness as John preached it? Do you believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God who took away YOUR sins? Do you take comfort in that? Does that make you good? Then you know you’ve got faith.
No matter where you’re starting from - Jesus says it wonderfully - the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God. If that statement is true, which it is - it clearly shows that salvation is not based on commitment or past actions. The kingdom of righteousness is based on forgiveness in Christ and faith in Christ. That’s how John lived. That’s what John preached. That’s what Jesus declared. If you have lived a life of rejection, through faith your past sins are forgiven. If you haven’t followed through on your commitments to God - through the sacrifice of Jesus you’re sins are paid for. If you haven’t lived a completely committed life, God is still committed to you through faith, and still forgives you. I don’t care where you are or what you’ve been - an honest heathen or a committed liar - Jesus wants all of you to repent and believe in Him. This is the key to entry into the kingdom of righteousness.
Only then, when we continually stay in John’s way of righteousness - through repentance and faith - can we begin to commit ourselves to work in His vineyard. There’s hard work to do, make no doubt about it. Producing fruit, picking fruit, in the midst of the burning hot sun and the plagues and diseases of this world - God never said it would be easy. We often times fail because we give up or because we don’t commit ourselves to the work like we could or we should. Yet with faith in Jesus, we continue on. We allow Jesus to prune us with hard times. We ask the Gardener to help us produce fruit that would help feed His kingdom. We do these things all the while knowing and believing that what John said was true - repentance and faith in Jesus is the true way and the only way of righteousness. Amen.