Matthew 21:23-32
Key Verse: 21:29

“’I will not’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went..”

The common folk, who witnessed Jesus’ rampage at the Temple, were really glad that someone finally expressed disgust at the way the Temple priests carried out God’s business with corruption and greed. But of course, the Temple priests themselves were terribly upset. And they were desperate to get rid of Jesus; at least they wanted to discredit him in front of all the people. Not that they didn’t try on many occasions, and failed! So they now confronted him on the matter of authority. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority”? Clever priests; what they’re saying is “No one of importance gave you authority to do anything; who do you think you are!” People believed that authority can be had only by the administration and approval of the Temple priests, particularly by the chief priests. And they wouldn’t be too wrong to think it. Human, religious or political authority is often given by one’s superiors and higher ups. One would need to be educated and trained in a certain field before they’re recognized as worthy enough to be bestowed upon with authority. However, they were very wrong to question Jesus’ authority, because Jesus’ kind of authority is not of human origin. It’s spiritual, not worldly. And it can only be given by Almighty God.

There’s no doubt that Jesus’ authority came from God. What he says and does have all been sanctioned and approved by God. The temple belonged to God and therefore, and the Son of God was absolutely endowed by the authority to do whatever he wanted to do with the Temple to reflect God’s approval or disapproval. The office of the priests, as well as that of the high priests, is in essence a spiritual office, and therefore can only be sanctioned by God. But these people had confused and replaced God’s authority with worldly and human authority; they had run the Temple in the way they saw fit, approving and disapproving whatever suited them. They had used their authority to oppress people with offerings and sacrifices they could not afford, and demanded obedience without question. They were peddling God’s word and running Temple functions by their own authority, thinking to sidestep God. But Jesus didn’t let them get away with it! He rebuked them for their corruption and their abuse of God’s Temple. Especially, he rebuked them for abusing their authority to lord it over people.

Sometimes people, even Christian people, think they have authority because of their seniority or because of the special privileges they enjoy in the Temple. But real authority can only come from God! And God bestows spiritual authority not according to human abilities or human privileges, but according to the measure of faith one has and according to the word of God living in a person’s heart and expressed through one’s life. So often Temples of God have been damaged because of those who think they are privileged with authority based on human factors, and based on the sacrifices they have made in God’s name. But God does not work like this at all! God needs not answer anyone. He isn’t in the habit of discriminating the way religious or worldly people do. God is righteous and God is just and so God gives authority to those who are inwardly broken with humility and with obedient faith to his will. These Temple priests people were sinning against God in their thoughts, in their behavior, when they questioned Jesus’ authority. What they were saying is that their own authority was superior to God’s!

Jesus didn’t bandy words with them. They weren’t sincere in their question to warrant a response; they only questioned his authority to assert their own authority and also to humiliate him in public. Yet Jesus’ helped them! He wanted them to see where real authority comes from, if they had enough sense to see it. “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism— where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men.” It was a simple question with a simple answer. The correct answer would have been “from heaven”, since everyone understood that John’s authority couldn’t possibly have come from men. John was obeying God’s call and will when he spoke the truth, and when he announced the Messiah’s coming, and when he baptized people. But the temple priests didn’t accept his authority given by God. Why? Because they were proud and self engrossed; and because John was not one of them or anywhere like them at all! He didn’t care for human respect, or for human recognition, and certainly he care little for material comforts. Instead he was a humble man with a message of truth! He spoke the truth. By his life, and by his lifestyle, he reflected what God desires most of his people. And in doing so, John made these hypocrites look bad since they loved the world more than they loved God. For that reason, they didn’t listen to the message of life God gave John for their own salvation. When Jesus challenged them to look and see where spiritual authority comes from, he wanted to help them see that people, even priests and spiritual workers can get easily caught up in the ways of this world; sometimes even imposing their own human ways and wisdom on God! We also do that sometimes when we rely too much on our own understanding rather than seeking God’s counsel; and when we refuse to humble ourselves before to God’s will staring us in the face!

Pride is a terrible thing. Pride can easily make us defy God and his will. We need to know that spiritual authority comes from the humility to honor God, especially in things we don’t understand or things we don’t like. Spiritual authority, like Jesus has, always looks for God’s guidance. It is always rooted in the word of God truth, even when it’s painful or humiliating for those who wield it. These Temple priests should have said, “Yes, John’s authority was given by God, it is God who gave him that authority to serve God’s will and purpose.” But look at what’s in their hearts in verses 25b-27! They were too clever for their own good. And foolish! So terribly foolish to deny the truth! “We don’t know” is an evil response. “We don’t care” is also an evil response. It is evil because it denies and contradicts God’s truth. How many times do people do this in order to save face, or to look good in front of others, or even to maintain an illusion of superiority or of control! Our pride may deceive us to think we are wise in our own ways, in the way we think or in the way we do things, even in the way we make our decisions. But pride is a terrible thing especially for God’s children who must do anything and everything in our power to honor God and to uphold his truth, rather than defying, maligning or contradicting God and his will. Jesus was broken hearted when he saw their stubborn pride; when he saw that they cared little for what’s good and right, and cared a lot more about their self esteem and public image. They thought they would hold on to their authority. But sadly, already as it is, they were loosing the respect of the people, who saw how full of themselves these godly men were! How tragic when God’s children do such things! Still, Jesus loved them and wanted to continue helping them in order to lead them to repentance.

Look at verse 28a. “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons.” Jesus really wanted them to see themselves in the eyes of God, so he told them a short story about a man who had two sons. Of course, the father of these two sons is God our Father. And who were these two sons? They represent all the people of God everywhere, especially all the Jews. And in a broader sense, the two sons represent all of humanity, both Jews and non Jews, that is the Gentiles. Who were the Jews of the time? There were the religious folk, like the Temple priests and such. And then there were the common folk, the Jewish public. God considered all of them his sons. The religious folk questioned Jesus’ authority; they rejected his teachings; they acted like enemies of God. Yet amazingly Jesus spoke of them as sons. Then there were the others, ordinary people, even the awful tax collectors and the shameless prostitutes. They were no better than the religious folk. They too acted like enemies of God! How so? When they chose to live without God and snub his word and his laws. Yet, it amazes us that Jesus considered them sons too. Why did Jesus care so much for those who acted as his enemies, when he came to be their Savior and Friend? Because he was reflecting God’s heart for them as a broken hearted Father. This is what God’s love is all about. God never crushes anyone, not even those who act like his enemies. He really loves them as sons and daughters and is ever eager to rescue them from sin and judgment before it’s too late. And if they ever come to their senses and see their own wretchedness of soul, and the depths to which they had fallen, God their Father is always there to pick them up when they repent and decide to return home to God. This is the gospel story we must ever tell to anyone who would listen.

Jesus begins his parable with these words: “There was a man who had two sons.” The Father’s love for his two sons is really wonderful. But it doesn’t change the fact and truth that as sons they had responsibilities towards their father; and that they need be held accountable for their lives and actions! Jesus really wants to emphasize the responsibility and consequence of each son’s attitude toward what their Father expects of them. Usually a son or daughter’s disobedience within a family setting results in friction! But when we look at things from a spiritual perspective, a son or daughter’s obedience or disobedience to the Father determines their eternal destiny. That’s why we really need to look at this parable with reverence to what Jesus’ says and learn from it.

Look at verses 28-31a. “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.’” The first did what his father wanted. He was asked to work in the field. But he really didn’t want to. Maybe he had other plans for the day. It could be anything; seeing some friends; too tired from yesterday’s work. He just didn’t want to work that day. He was honest enough to openly reject his father’s will for him to work. He had his reasons. But in truth, there’s no real reason to refuse to do what his Father wanted him to do. His attitude really reflects all people’s real attitude toward God. We are all born rebellious and disobedient to God. This seed of rebellion has been in our hearts ever since the first man disobeyed God. Listen to what Paul says: It shows us what’s really in our hearts. He says: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out… I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” [Romans 7] Very interesting! Even when we want to do something good; when we want to obey God; the seed of rebelliousness is so deeply rooted in us. The son didn’t want to disobey his father. But when he listened to his own heart, and followed its desire, look what happened! He couldn’t but say NO to his father.

But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus tells us that the son later went to work in the field. Why the sudden change of heart and mind? Jesus doesn’t tell us what made him change his mind. But he doesn’t condemn him either for refusing to obey in the first place. It looks like Jesus didn’t mind his blatant disobedience. He only commends him that in the end he changed his mind and did as his father wanted. We don’t know what changed his heart. It may not have been so sudden either. Maybe he thought about it. He griped a little. He frowned at what he had been asked to do. But then he had second thoughts. He really wasn’t going to budge in this matter. But then he thought about his father. His father had no right to tell him what to do. It was his life and no one else’s and no one was going to tell him what to do. But somehow he could not shake off the thoughts that his father loved him, and had been good to him all along. He used to read him bed time stories. When he was scared, his father chased away the boogie man. Maybe what changed his heart and mind was his father’s unconditional love for him. He realized that he owes it to his father more than he owes it to his own desires. So he began to walk to the field and put in a good day’s work. It was a decision he made to deny himself, to repent of his rebellious thoughts, and to do what he knew he should do. He may not have started out well, but in the end, he was a good son to his father.

People cannot go against their sinful nature that wants to do its own thing! Again, we can look at what Paul said about a person overcomes the sinful nature in order to follow God’s will. He says: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God— through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And that’s the truth! Paul like all people didn’t have the power to change. But he tells us that it was Christ who changed him and helped him to live a life of obedience to God. And that’s what Jesus did for all of us. It is the power of the gospel and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ that helps us to break away form the old life of saying “no” to God and begin to live the new life of saying “yes” to God in all that he calls us to live for. Even for those who are in Christ, often rebellious thoughts and feelings enter the heart. What to do with them! We know that the sinful nature is powerful and often wants to pull God’s children in the wrong direction. But the blood of Jesus working in our hearts is more powerful. He gives the grace to consider how to deal with these thoughts and feelings. And he gives the grace and the strength to fight them. Like the son who thought about it, and repented and decided to listen to his father’s will, we too can repent and discipline our hearts to walk away from what is displeasing to God and walk in the way he calls us to. We need often think of God’s grace in our lives, his love and we are empowered by him to make the right decisions for his glory.

Jesus also talked about the second son. He said yes to his father, but then he didn’t do what his father had asked of him. He said yes! But that’s not enough just to be agreeable. Jesus weighed his actions. And it seems that he was as rebellious as his brother. This second son may have been the kind of person who could not say no to anyone! So his answer was often yes. But what’s in his heart was so different from what his mouth said. He could be a very gentle and well mannered son. He may have wanted to go but then realized that there were other things more important for him to do as his father said. Maybe other more pressing things came up. The field would always be there tomorrow for him to work, and there’s no real hurry. Whatever he may or may not have thought or felt, the truth is that he didn’t really obey his father. He too had a chance to resist what his heart wanted him to do and to decide to do what his father wanted. But really, he just didn’t want to resist doing his own thing. In the end he was worse off than the other son who said no but then repented and did the father’s will.

Jesus was talking about the Pharisees who thought they were spiritual. They really thought they were being obedient to God because they tended to the temple, because they recited verses, because they prayed and offered sacrifices. They were happy that they were not like the others who had walked away from God and from doing what God wanted them to do. But they were deceiving themselves to think that they were in good standing with God. However, it was just the opposite! Jesus says that they were arrogant and proud and even blind to see themselves and what they’d become! What’s the will of God for them and for us and for everyone? When the time comes for them to obey God’s voice, to repent and to humble themselves, the truth is that they simply didn’t. Actually they closed their heart and decided not to listen.

People are sometimes just like them in the world. How many think they are in good standing with God because they says yes to God. Actually it’s easy to yes. But doing what God wants us to do isn’t so easy. It usually takes a hard decision to go against what we want to do and to do what God would like us to do. The one who said yes, looked like he was obedient but his heart wasn’t. He missed the chance to please his father. He was right to think that he was a loved son by his father. But he was wrong to think that there would be no consequences to how he behaves, what he says and what he does. He was also really foolish because he never considered repenting for his bad attitude towards his father and hat his father desired. Jesus really teaches us in this parable what God wants; he wants obedience. And he also teaches us that obedience isn’t a matter of words, but of actions.

What did his father expect second son to do? Look at verses 31-32. “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 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.” God sent Jesus to all of us to show us the way of righteousness! Why? Because without righteousness no one can have salvation or enter God’s kingdom. And the way of righteousness is this: To repent of our rebellious hearts and minds and to put our faith in Jesus’ gospel of his death and resurrection which alone has the power to change a rebellious heart and make it obedient and fruitful to God. Our father wants us humble and obedient to his teachings and will. It’s the way of righteousness! God also wants us to serve him in his vineyard, bearing the fruit he asks for. All his sons and daughters have been called to serve him, especially in the work of sharing the gospel, in spreading his word, in teaching it, and in raising disciple and disciple makers for his kingdom. But we need obedient faith, and not casual agreement and then laying back. Praise God for his grace which helps us not only to say “yes” to God but to do as he says as well.

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