28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go work in the vineyard today.’
29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. ‘I will, sir,’ he answered, but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?”
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; but you, when you saw it, didn’t even change your minds then and believe him.
It isn’t what you say, it’s what you do.
The parable kicks-off the last week of Jesus’ ministry. Consider the following, Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem, and on a single day:
- He has just rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
- He has received the praise of the crowd that he’s the Messiah
- He has cleansed the temple
- He has healed many sick in the temple courts
- He’s had a showdown with the leadership of Israel
- He rebuked a fig-tree for not having figs to eat
- He had another encounter with the leaders of Jerusalem over his authority,
- He teaches two parables (this one, and “the Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” vv. 33-46.)
- He has another go-around with the Jewish leadership
And you thought you had a busy day! Jesus realizes that time is running short for him and on his earthly ministry. This parable, and the one that follows is a clear indictment on the Jewish leadership—the scribes, Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The parable must be understood by those in his audience. The leaders listened, and so did the crowds. Everyone got to hear the truth, whether they liked it or not. We must realize that Jesus didn’t intend to antagonize his audience purposefully. He only spoke these two parables to clarify what was true in the kingdom of God. Two sons, two reactions. The story divides the people right down the middle—you either accepted his word, or you ignored it.
It doesn’t matter what you said, it does matter what you did.
Tax-collectors and prostitutes (!) discover that the door to the kingdom opens up for them, but slams shut when the religious people want in. Jesus’ story declares that the Pharisees must go to the back of the line, and wait for others to enter in first. (Now that’s a mind blower.)
Let’s not get it mixed up. Salvation is 100% pure grace, and it has zero per cent human effort. He saves us, not because we’re such wonderful people (at least on Sundays, anyway!), but because of his gracious love. “It is by grace that we’re saved,” (Eph 2:8-9).
We’re the ones who won’t go to work when asked, but afterwards we decide to go. When we listen to Jesus—either from a Pharisee or a sinner viewpoint, will determine our real position in the kingdom.
What we say matters little, but what we do matters a great deal more.
“They talk of repenting, but they do not repent. They speak of believing, but they never believe. They think of submitting to God, but they have not submitted themselves to him yet. They say it is time they broke up the fallow ground, and sought the Lord, but they do not seek him. It all ends in a mere promise.”
Art by Eugène Burnand