"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, 'Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For 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.' (Matt. 21:28-32)
Jesus is having yet another dispute with the Pharisees. He enters the temple courts. He begins to teach the people and then here comes the By What Authority Are You Doing This? crowd. Now, let's stop there and moment and ponder the boys in their linen vestments. Jesus is on their turf, so to speak, and they want to know, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). The Temple represents God's dwelling place on Earth. Let's see what their possible motivations are with this question:
1. We are guardians of God's House, here Rabbi Jesus. You come from a hayseed town in Galilee. Where were you trained? Who trained you? We have a reputation to protect and we can't just let anybody set up shop and start teaching.
2. We appreciate your zeal, but we are alarmed at how the people gravitate to you and away from us. WE have been appointed to do God's work. Can you claim the same?
3. You don't look like us or sound like us. You need to fall into line with how we do things around here if you want to teach here.
4. The Romans are always breathing down our necks. If you anger us, that's one thing. Anger them, and we all will pay dearly.
OK, so either the boys are sincerely guarding their turf; they are jealous; they want brand consistency or they're desperate to maintain the status quo. So, how does Jesus respond?
"Jesus answered them, 'I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?'
And they discussed it among themselves, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven," he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, "From man," we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” (Matt. 21:24-6)
Jesus' rather piercing question is to see what is in their hearts. He wants to expose their motivation in asking Him this question. The question on the surface seems well-intentioned. They seem to take their guardian role very seriously. But do they? In other words, what is the foundation upon which they stand? They claim it's God's holy Word; but is it?
The question takes on epic proportions because it points the debate right back to the Scriptures. The authority of the Messiah's forerunner points to the legitimacy of the One Who comes after. John took on the authority of baptism to prepare the hearts and minds of God's children for the greater One to come:
"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'
For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
'The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts
and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to
him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Matt. 3:1-6)
John had fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy. "Lord" means "Messiah" (the Anointed One of God) and John is announcing the imminent work of God. Thus, he is a prophet as well as a forerunner. How the Pharisees answer Jesus' question is critical, and they know it. If John spoke the truth, the Pharisees will be held accountable by God for their unbelief in the One Who Has Come. If John spoke falsely, the leaders, while wanting to expose this (and by extension, Jesus) will run the risk of angering the crowd. The crowd sees him as a prophet.
So, Jesus is demanding that they reevaluate their position in the light of the Scriptures. They have studied the Old Testament to the last detail. Does John fulfill the criteria of a prophet?
Instead of going directly to the Word, they decline to respond. They are not even willing to debate the matter. But, if they look to the Word (which they claim to stand on) they would see it being fulfilled right before their very eyes.
Earlier, Jesus rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey, thus fulfilling Isaiah's and Zechariah's messianic prophecies. In fact, the reports of His ministry show that messianic prophecies are being continuously fulfilled and the Pharisees know it.
Jesus is deliberately placing the Scriptures front and center. The criteria for the Messiah is clearly delineated; thus, any discussion as to Jesus' claim should be an exploration of the Word.
The Pharisees' response? Either we debate the Scriptures with this hayseed from Nazareth and risked looking stupid--he seems to really know his stuff--or we tick off the crowd, who seems to be at a fevered pitch of excitement and support for him.
Sadly, they take the worse tactic possible: "We do not know." (Matt. 21:27) The easy way out, to be sure, but the most telling: they are in the presence of Someone that they cannot understand. But: They equally choose not to pursue the truth in order to understand. They reject the very foundation they claim to represent: the Scriptures. In fact, Jesus says in another place to them, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life." (John 5:39-40)
Jesus, seeing their unwillingness to pursue the truth, responds, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things." (v. 27) Sadly, no one has ever been won to the Kingdom through argument alone. If one is willing to pursue the truth to wherever it may lead, and be willing to risk having to leave behind one's preconceptions, the Scriptures should be the only arena of discussion. Jesus' method was to always point back to the Word to validate His ministry. Why do we think we can improve on His method?
Jesus will teach on two sons and a landowner. Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly. He is now in the Temple (the Pharisees' ultimate turf) and He is being grilled by them as to His authority to do and to teach what He does. Jesus uses a lot of father/sons parables. If He is willing to call the Almighty, "Father," then He needs to show what that means. His parables are perfect for that, for everyone can relate to family stories.
The father in this parable gently commands his first son to go to work. Vineyards take a lot of work; as any farmer will tell you, there is always something to do. The first son is unwilling to be initially obedient. He is honest in his response, but as a son, it is a disappointing response. This is not just any employer; it is his father that he is saying "No" to.
So, the son's response reverberates deeper. Why did he tell his father, "I will not"? He didn't say that he was unable to do the work, or that he is too busy to do it or that he is too good for such labor; he says he won't do it. It is his choice not to do it.
Why do we choose to disobey God? Does this son feel that he can't please his father? That whatever he does will not pass muster? The fact that the father asked him in the first place indicates that the father has confidence in his abilities. Otherwise, the father could go out and hire workers. But, the father gives his son the job: for the father trusts the son, even if the son is unsure of his abilities.
So, the first son, having giving it some thought, changes his mind. Why?
Dad asked me to do the work today. He didn't indicate he was going to show me what to do; he trusts that I know what to do. He trusts that I know enough to do well enough. His vineyard is important to him; he trusts me to go in and work. Wow. I sort of thought he didn't even consider me worthy enough to go out there and do what needs to be done. But he does. I don't want to let him down. I'll go!
Away he goes. Perhaps the father knew that as well--the son's lack of confidence would initially stop him from going, but with a little love shown his way, his son would perk up and go.
The father asks the next son. This son sounds eager and obedient, but his heart is neither. He complies, but then will not go.
Dad asked me to work today. How come? I don't like all that dirt. The bugs drive me nuts, swarming around my head. The sun is hot and I get tired. Isn't being his son good enough? There are workers out there he could hire. I am not just any 'ol worker--I am his son. I sure wish he'd treat me like one. I get certain privileges as his son, and I don't see getting dirt under my fingernails as one of them. So, yeah, I said yes, but why do it? I am a son, not a servant; even if my father forgets, I don't!
Of course, the question is answered correctly by the Pharisees--the first son is the one who did what his father wanted. The son's actions portray his heart. The Pharisees must be happily associating themselves with this first son.
We obey, Rabbi Jesus. OK, we may grumble here and there, but at least we get out and do the work.
Jesus quickly interrupts their reverie by unpacking the parable for them. John the Baptist was clearly chosen as the Messiah's forerunner, to show the people the "way of righteousness." The very bottom of society--the ones who think they are not worthy to go into the vineyard--are going in. Why? They changed their minds. They caught a glimpse of the truth that they are the sons and daughters of God, and that is why he invited them in. Not because of what they have done, but because of who they are.
The society labels them "sinners."
The Father labels them "sons and daughters."
These folks took hold of John's words and saw Jesus as the Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world. They came to be baptized by John. They were willing to have their sins cleansed and then enter into a new way of seeing themselves. They went into the vineyard because of their Father's invitation. The Kingdom of God is a place for sons and daughters, and the people's willingness to enter in show their willingness to see themselves as God sees them.
Wow! Now, to the next son, who really sports the attitude of the Pharisees. They outwardly act like sons, but are not willing to see what the Father is really doing. They think they have God figured out; they have boiled the relationship down to rules and regulations. The Pharisees didn't see the people flocking to John as Heaven's gates swinging wide open, but as an affront to their neat and orderly way of serving God. But, God's way was right in front of their eyes. They refused to see this.
Their way didn't include sinners walking in forgiveness and freedom. Their way wouldn't have showered the status of sons and daughters upon such low-lifes...that title was reserved for those He favored, which, of course, meant the Pharisees.
Let's look at the blueprint of God's Kingdom, found in Isaiah 61:1-2. (Incidentally, Jesus read this very scripture to inaugurate His ministry):
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners;
to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
And the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion,
giving them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.…
Sons listen to their Father. Sons obey out of a sincere heart. Daughters enter His presence with joy and thanksgiving. They serve because of love. They may feel unworthy at first, but they changed their minds. Why? It is the Lord's kindness that leads us to repentance. No one ever entered the Kingdom by rules and regulations...a lesson the Pharisees had yet to learn.