To DOWNLOAD an MP3 of this message, first right click here then choose "save link as" or "save target as". Older audio is removed to conserve server space, but is available by request.
Human beings are creatures of habit. As we go through life, we repeat things. We develop routines that we follow, good or bad.
What are your habits? Shower in the morning? Cup of coffee on the way to work? A favorite radio station talk show that you tune into everyday?
Besides the outward habits of everyday life, we develop inner habits too. Some of these are good. Praying to God each day. Taking time to think about God’s Word. Worshipping God in our hearts as we gather with fellow believers.
But there are also bad habits that we develop. Worrying about our problems. Endlessly fidgeting in our souls about uncertainties. Judging other people in a shallow way. Not putting the best construction on their words and actions. Gossiping about people around us. Responding to the unexpected problems of life with anger, or unkind words.
Bad habits like these are like ruts in an old gravel road. When we travel over them repeatedly, they get deeper, and harder to steer out of.
As sinful human beings we tend to excuse our bad habits. As bad habits are revisited we can start to think of them as “not all THAT bad”, or even “okay.” Like it says in Proverbs 21,
“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2 ESV).
Sometimes we need to see our sinful habits through someone else’s eyes before we wake up and see how wrong we really are.
The Old Testament of the Bible relates a story from the life of King David. A story about a deep rut he had gotten himself into, and how God used a little story to pull David out of his rut.
David had committed adultery with a married woman. And then he had arranged for her husband to die in battle so that HE could marry her. Somehow David excused his action in his own eyes. He knew it was wrong. He hid it from the people around him. But God knew, and was not pleased.
So God sent his prophet Nathan to speak with David. Instead of confronting David directly, Nathan told him a story. There was a poor man who had one precious little lamb that he cared for. The lamb was like a little child to him. It ate from his hand, and sat in his lap. But when the poor man’s rich neighbor had some company visiting, the rich man took the poor man’s little lamb and prepared it for dinner (see 2 Samuel 12).
David responded to this little story with great anger. He was outraged that someone would do such a thoughtless and uncaring thing. David declared that the rich man deserved to die for his lack of pity.
It was at that point that Nathan said, “The rich man I was talking about, is you.”
And that was all it took to help David see his sin for the evil it truly was. David was filled with sorrow over what he had done.
In our sermon reading for today, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. This group of men were entrenched in unbelief. They called themselves followers of Yahweh, but they refused to listen to the Word of the LORD. These men had opposed Jesus at every turn. But Jesus still reached out to them and told them a little story that was meant to jar them out of the rut of unbelief and help them to see the forgiveness and life that was theirs for the taking.
Matthew 21:28-32 (NKJV)
28 “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. 30 Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to Him, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
Just like Nathan’s story to David, Jesus’ story was simple. Two sons were told to go work in the vineyard. One was openly defiant, but changed his mind later on. The other said all the right words, but didn’t go.
The answer to Jesus’ question was as simple as the story. Of course the son who actually went to work in the vineyard was the one who did what his father wanted. Even the Pharisees could see that. And so they convicted themselves.
They should have believe John the Baptist when he came preaching in the wilderness. John’s whole message was in tune with the message of the Old Testament—turn away from your sins, and come to God for forgiveness that he promised. It was really as simple as that.
But the Pharisees had long ceased to look to God’s Word for direction. Instead, they used pieces of the Bible here and there to justify the things they wanted to do. When the Bible talked about sinners, the Pharisees thought, that must mean other people. They believed that they had lived good enough lives to stand before God in the Final Judgment.
And so they only went out to John the Baptist in order to see what was going on there in the wilderness. They saw no need to confess their sins, no need to be Baptized for the remission of sins.
In short, they didn’t believe John’s message. They didn’t believe God’s message. They didn’t need forgiveness. They were good.
But even so, Jesus says that they should have reconsidered their position when they saw the effect of John’s ministry on others.
Tax collectors were known for being thieves. They were people who were contracted by the Romans to collect various taxes from the people. There wasn’t much oversight for these tax collectors, so they robbed the people. They routinely demanded excessive taxes, and pocketed the difference.
Harlots were also open sinners. They were prostitutes who committed sexual sins for cash.
And yet, when these open sinners heard John the Baptist preaching the truth that God’s judgment will follow human sin, they were convicted. They felt remorse for the evils they had committed. And when John reached out to them with the promise of cleansing and forgiveness from God, they believed it—and were Baptized for the remission of their sins.
And the changes that happened in the lives of these once open sinners should have opened the eyes of the Pharisees. These tax collectors and harlots were people the Pharisees considered beyond hope. They’d never change. But through John’s preaching of sin and grace, they did change.
In the home of Zacchaeus, Jesus heard the following confession from a tax collector…
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8 NIV).
On another occasion, a woman who was known to be an open sinner came to see Jesus. While Jesus laid beside the dinner table in the home of a Pharisee, this woman stood at his feet in tears. When her tears fell on his feet, she knelt down and used her very hair to wipe the dust from Jesus’ feet. Then she broke open a jar of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet. It may seem strange and foreign to us today, but this was her way of thanking Jesus for showing her the way to God—the way of repentance and forgiveness.
The Pharisees, with all their cold condemnation and formal observance of rules and regulations, had never experienced anything like this. Tax collectors and prostitutes didn’t come to the Pharisees in open confession, nor with beautiful expressions of a new-found hope. And the effect of the Gospel on people like this should have made the Pharisees think again. There was power in this Gospel of Jesus, power they knew nothing about.
Jesus’ little parable about the two sons was meant to help the Pharisees see their own sinful unbelief. It was meant to snap them out of their rut, and place within their grasp the forgiveness that Yahweh had promised way back in the garden of Eden. The Father above wanted the Pharisees to go into the vineyard too. To enter with the tax collector and the prostitute, and to find forgiveness, and a new way—the way of life.
And Jesus would have you and I ponder this little parable too. Jesus would have us ask ourselves the question, “What about me? Which son am I? Am I the defiant one, or the liar? What about me? Which class do I belong to? The open sinner, stumbling around in my sins, or the hypocrite, secure in my own tattered righteousness?”
Which of those groups do you relate to the most? Seriously, which one?
Are you the bold son, openly disobeying the father? Have you lived your life on your own terms, according to your own rules? Do you wear your heart on your sleeve, telling others to quit judging you? Have you made excuses for your sins and worn the rut deeper and deeper?
Or are you the hypocritical son, protecting your reputation with finely constructed lies? Professing one thing, but living the opposite? Do you play your cards close to the vest, keeping the truth about your heart carefully hidden? And how deep is the rut you’ve dug?
Either way, the message of Jesus here is the same. The door is still open. The forgiveness of God is still free. The price Jesus paid to take our sins away cannot be undone, it can only be refused. The fact that Jesus suffered hell for your sins on the cross cannot be erased, it can only be ignored.
By telling this parable to the Pharisees, Jesus testifies that even to them the door was still open. These men had opposed Jesus at every turn! If you read the chapters around our text you’ll see that the Pharisees were trying their hardest to trap Jesus in his words. They wanted him to look bad to the people, and to the Roman overlords. They were at this very moment trying to carry out a plot to have Jesus murdered. But still Jesus reaches out to them. Still Jesus tries to help them see the blackness of their sins, and the foolishness of their unbelief. Still Jesus tries to put the gift of forgiveness in their hands and hearts.
And it is this same gift of repentance and forgiveness that Jesus holds out to you and me today.
When the prophet Nathan confronted David about his sin of adultery and murder, David was filled with a spirit of repentance. He said,
“I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13 NKJV).
And immediately, immediately Nathan replied,
“The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13b NKJV).
Today, and every day, God offers us the same forgiveness. When we humbly bring our sins to him in prayer, his response is the same. He says, “I’ve put your sins on my own Son. He suffered for them, and now they’re gone. You shall not die, but live.”
It really doesn’t matter what kind of sinner you have been. Defiant, bold, secretive, lying, thief, harlot—it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how terrible and ugly your sins have been, because in Christ we have a greater Savior.
That’s what those tax collectors and harlots learned from Jesus. And that’s what changed them. That’s what Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see too. It would have changed them also, forever.
Human beings are creatures of habit. As we go through life, we repeat things. We develop routines that we follow, good or bad. So make this your habit—go to Jesus in prayer. Confess your ugly choices to him, and trust the promise of forgiveness that follows.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts, and your minds, in Christ Jesus.