“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him." - Matthew 21:28-32
As Jesus enters Jerusalem on his way to the cross, he encounters the Jewish leaders. They don’t like him. Jesus is a threat to their authority. He teaches with power. He heals effectively. He has baffling insight and wisdom. And on top of it all, he claims to be the Messiah. Their pride can’t handle this combination. Before them stands Jesus, the Son of God, and instead of bowing down to him, they interrogate him.
Jesus knew his Bible, so he was not surprised to meet such opposition from the leaders of God’s people. It was always this way—God would send a messenger and Israel would persecute them. Claiming to be on God’s side, they’d prove otherwise by their actions towards God’s mouthpiece. Without fully realizing what they were doing, their violence toward the prophets was a foreshadowing of the violence toward God himself in Jesus Christ. That’s why Jesus dies with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
What we do with God’s word is a pointer to what we do with God himself. If we treat his word as worthless, disgusting, imposing, violating, or offensive, then we will treat God himself that way. When, for example, something like the Nashville Statement seeking to reaffirm biblical values on sexuality meets such outrage from within Christianity, we must begin to think how we would react to Jesus if he were here today.
We must wonder how the wider church views the Bible—if the God presented there is the God known to the masses. Or, perhaps, we’ve created a new god, one that has the semblance of holiness but is disguised as an angel of light. How we treat God’s word is how we treat God. The only thing preventing us from killing him is that the first century Jews already did.
And here is Jesus, standing before them, on trial before he goes to trial, the prophet before his hard-hearted people. The old saying, “actions speak louder than words,” would be an apt title for this parable. This parable shows us the importance of doing what is right, not merely talking about doing what is right. The Jewish leaders talked a good game, but no matter how much they studied the playbook, they always ran the wrong play. The Divine Coach had them on the field, and they trusted their intuition more than the Coach’s word.
This parable teaches two primary lessons on two different levels.
Lesson one, level one: the one who listens and obeys God is the one who does God’s will.
Lesson two, level one: the one who listens but disobeys God is the one who fails to do God’s will.
Lesson one, level two: anyone can come to Jesus, all you must do is listen and obey.
Lesson two, level two: whoever comes to Jesus must truly want to listen and obey, not merely pretend to.
Level one is what we see in the story itself. Level two is what we see in Jesus’s words after the parable. The Christian life, from beginning to end, is comprised of listening to God’s word and walking in obedience to it. We won’t be perfect, but what we do with what God says will prove how we really view God. We may say we follow him, but our arrival in the vineyard is the only ultimate proof that we actually do.
Since Adam and Eve sinned and lost their home in the Garden of Eden, the world has been inhabited by sinners, the nation of Israel not excluded. Some were easier to spot. They were the tax collectors, extorting their fellow citizens on behalf of Rome. They were the prostitutes, violating their bodies and the bodies of others for money. Sin consumed their daily life, unable even go to work without marring their soul. They were the wicked, outcast, despised. But they also repented and believed Jesus when he came to them. It was not hard for others to see their sin, and it was not hard to see it themselves. Their problem was not knowledge of sin but what to do with that sin. They’d been banished and left to their own devices. So, when the Physician comes, they ask for healing. Their response to the gospel was the proper one, even if their life before showed no openness to God. This group comprised lesson one. They initially refused to listen to God, but later changed their mind. Jesus came to them, and they decided to stick around.
But there was another group of sinners in Israel. They didn’t look the part. They were those who read the Bible and prayed and went to the temple for feasts and sacrifices. They were the ones who appeared close to God. But their heart betrayed them. When God came to them, they didn’t draw near. The tax collectors and prostitutes begged for mercy; the Pharisees and scribes thought they already had it. And in their arrogance, they found themselves not fighting for God but fighting against him. It is never enough to make promises to God, or to say you believe, or to memorize the right words. What ultimately matters is that our heart truly desires God. The outside can be clean, but as Jesus said, it could be merely a whitewashed tomb.
Jesus didn’t have to engage the Jewish leaders—he knew who they were even if they couldn’t see it—but he engaged them anyway because God’s word of grace goes out to all, even to the God-haters. Anyone who repents can have God. Jesus was giving them a chance to see themselves and to repent of their sin. But they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do it. All they had to do was obey his voice, but what went out pure as the newly fallen snow, fell to their dirty heart and became a mud so thick they couldn’t wash it off. Not only couldn’t they, but they also wouldn't even try. Instead, they plotted in their heart against the Son who came to save. They listened to the Father and said, “Sure, I’ll go,” then turned their back and plotted murder.
Which way are you turning? How you respond to the Word of God is how you respond to God. Not everything in the Bible is easy to accept, but if we refuse it as an outdated interpretation or backward view of life, we will find ourselves walking out of the presence of God and into the presence of Satan. We will side with the enemy and post ourselves in the fortress of defiance. But the gospel goes even there. God never stops shooting his arrows of light. The question is, what kind of target is he going to find? One of flesh, easily penetrable, or one of stone, impenetrable? When Jesus sends his armies of grace, let’s wave the white flag.
Editor's Note: This originally published at Things of the Sort