By Dr. Mickey Anders
Tony Campolo has a famous sermon for Good Friday entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming.” In his dramatic sermon, he tempers all the discouragement and disappointment of Good Friday with promise of the Resurrection. Again and again, his voice rings out, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”
Today’s text has something of the same foreshadowing, but in this case it is not a message of hope but one of foreboding. At every point we need to be reminded, “It’s Sunday, but Friday’s coming!” Chapter 21 began with the wonderful events of Palm Sunday. The crowds filled the streets of Jerusalem crying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Matthew follows with his account of the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus proclaims, “My house shall be a called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
But Matthew reminds us that Friday is coming in verse 15, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children who were crying in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the son of David!” they were indignant …” And our chapter ends with Matthew’s clear proclamation that the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to arrest him. It’s Sunday, but Friday’s coming! Over the next several chapters we see the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish officials coming to a head. Step by step and day by day we are being led to the cross.
In our text for today, the Chief priests and elders challenge Jesus regarding his authority. First they ask “By what authority do you do these things,” and secondly, they ask, “Who gave you this authority?”
We can only guess which “things” they are referring to. Perhaps they are asking about that presumptive ride into Jerusalem almost like that of a triumphant king returning from battle. Or they may have been asking about the nerve he showed in cleansing the temple. Maybe they wanted to know by what authority he healed the lame and the blind, as reported in verse 14.
The conflict between Jesus and these religious leaders is not new. Jesus knows immediately that their questioning has ulterior motives. This is a word game; a trap by which the Pharisees wish to undermine the ministry of Jesus.
If the Pharisees had been asking a legitimate question, I believe Jesus would have given a straight-forward answer about his authority. Since Jesus knew they were not sincere, he turned the tables on them by asking a difficult question. “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?”
Now the Pharisees are trapped. If they answer that John’s message came from God, then their whole opposition to Jesus would be called into question. If they denied that the message came from God, then the crowd would turn against them. So they replied, “We don’t know.” Since they are not willing to be honest with Jesus, he feels no obligation to openly share with them the source of his own authority.
Then he turns to tell the parable of the two sons. A certain man had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go work today in my vineyard.” He answered, “I will not;” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir;” but he did not go. “Which of the two did the will of his father?”
At the very beginning we should point out that the response of both sons is imperfect. One says no and then on second thought decides to go, and the other says yes but for some reason never enters the fields. Neither response would bring a great deal of satisfaction to the father. But given a choice one has to say the first response is preferable to the last.
The natural focus is on the second son. Verse 45 says, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he spoke about them. When they sought to seize him….” It was in the story of the second son that the Pharisees saw themselves.
And I suspect that, if we were honest with ourselves, most of us identify more with the second son than with the first. The second son, who so graciously agrees to work but then fails to fulfill his commitments, reminds us of ourselves. We too have trouble being consistent with our words and our deeds.
How many of us have made rash promises and then faltered in keeping our promises? Perhaps we have made an honest attempt, but find ourselves falling short. We often miss the mark of the high standards that we set for ourselves. In fact, every one of us can most identify with that son who told his father, “Yes, I’ll go and work for you.” But, like him, we get distracted, frustrated, or just “weary of well doing.” And the next thing we know, all our good intentions, all of our commitment goes down the drain, and we end up never finishing the job. We all know what it is like to say one thing and then find ourselves doing another. We are a bundle of inconsistencies. We are all guilty. Jesus’ little story hits us right between the eyes. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We are too much like the rich young man who was taken to the hospital, critically ill. His condition worsened, and his doctor even told him that he wasn’t sure if he’d recover, but that they would do all they could.
The man was obviously scared to death, and said to the doctor, “Please, doctor, I don’t want to die, I have so much to do yet in life. If you can help me get better, I’ll donate $100,000 to the hospital building fund.
Fortunately, the young man began to improve and recovered, and a few weeks later was released and went home.
Several months later, the doctor happened to see the man at a social function, and after seeing that he was doing very well with no sign of his former illness, the doctor reminded him of his promise.
“You remember you said if you got well, you’d like to donate $100,000, and we could really use that now.”
The young man replied, “Wow, if I said that, I must have been really sick!” (1)
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There are many in the church like that. They never argue, never criticize, or give others any problems. And yet getting them to do anything is nearly impossible.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the employer who was asked to write a letter of recommendation for a rather lazy employee. The employer wanted to be honest, but he also wanted the employee to get the new job so that he would leave the company. Thus the employer concluded his letter of reference with these words: “If you get John to work for you, you will be extremely fortunate. Yours truly…” (2)
But let’s not forget the first son. After all, the disturbing moral of this story is that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you.” If the Pharisees are represented by the second son in the story, then the prostitutes are represented by the first son. He’s the one who rudely answered, “‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.”
I find this part of the story as interesting and disturbing as that we’ve just considered. How can the prostitutes be included in the kingdom before the obviously religious people? What did Jesus have against the religious leaders? And, more importantly, does he have the same things against those of us who are the religious people today?
The religious people where the ones who were a problem for Jesus. They were oblivious to the true demands of God’s righteousness. They just didn’t get it. They never saw that God was not so much interested in the pious rhetoric and ceremonial formality. They were more interested in formal declaration than in ethical action. In another place, Jesus said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven;
but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
God seems to have the most difficult job in getting through to those of us who work with religion. Those of us who handle holy things assume we are exempt from God’s message. Religious leaders may never consider that they may be wrong. Few things are worse than spiritual blindness.
And what was it about the tax collectors and prostitutes that got them included in the kingdom? Clearly, the tax collectors and prostitutes believed the message of John, while the religious authorities were resistant.
Methodist pastor Nancy Ore makes this observation:
“Jesus didn’t say they’d get in because of their behavior. He said they’d get in because they knew they weren’t perfect and knew how desperately they needed God. They knew how much they longed to be in the vineyard… It’s not the folks like the Pharisees who are in God’s presence. It’s not the folks who think they know all the right words or how to do the right sermon. It’s not the folks who think they know the religious rules and are rigidly and self-righteously and joylessly living them out. The folks who get into God’s Kingdom vineyard are the folks who know they’re not perfect. The folks who are afraid, the folks who are hurt, the folks who feel guilt, who agonize over broken relationships… the folks who are sick… and tired… and sick and tired. The folks who are acutely aware of their separation from God. It’s the folks who say, ‘Yes, I’ll go into the vineyard and work with God. There’s nothing which could keep me away!’ It’s the folks who not only go, but while they’re there, they are the folks who will be making wine and when the work is done, they’ll drink that sweet flowing wine with their brothers and sisters… communion.” (3)
Jesus seemed to portray publicans and prostitutes as people keenly aware of their moral failings who thus may also be best prepared and eager to hear God’s Word of forgiveness and grace. They are able to know genuine repentance, for their sins are ever before them.
William Barclay summarizes this passage by saying there are two very common classes of people. First, there are the people whose profession is much better than their practice. Second, there are those whose practice is far better than their profession. But then he rightly reminds us that the really good person is the one “in whom profession and practice meet and match.” That should certainly be our goal.
There’s a wonderful scene near the end of the movie “My Fair Lady” in which Liza Doolittle sings words that God must also sing. She says, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don’t talk of stars burning above; If you’re in love, Show me!… Never do I ever want to hear another word. There isn’t one I haven’t heard… Don’t talk of love lasting through time. Make me no undying vow. Show me now!”
William Barclay says, “Promises can never take the place of performance. Fine words are never a substitute for fine deeds.” Let’s be a people of fine words and fine deeds!
1) David Tietz, PRCL, 9/25/2002
2) Marilyn Saure Breckenridge, Questions of Faith, CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, 2001, p. 69
3) “The Parable of the Wise Old Woman” by Nancy Ore in Best Sermons 2, edited by James W. Cox, Harper & Row, 1989, p. 416
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2002, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.