09.28.14 The One Person You May Judge Matthew 21:23-32 Sermon Summary
According to this parable, there are only two kinds of people who attend worship. Which kind are you?
- The two sons, chief priests, elders, tax collectors, prostitutes, and us
- Why religious people especially are so judgmental
- That God is patient in the present, and forgiving of the past
- How Jesus frees us to be less judgmental and to live more faithfully
- Questions for discussion and reflection
There are two sons in this parable of Jesus, and in his own interpretation he suggests that one of the sons represents upright religious folks. The other son represents tax collectors and prostitutes. When the father asks both sons to work in the vineyard, the first says “no” but eventually goes; the second says “yes” but does not go. When everyone agrees that the first son, though initially saying “no,” is the one who actually does the father’s will, Jesus tells the chief priests and religious elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before them.
So which son are we? Either we think we deserve to be in the church because we’re believers, or at least we’re religious. Or it’s because we so desperately want what Jesus preached to be true. We’re sinners and we know it. We screw ups, broken, and lost.
In Jesus’ parable, everyone gets into the kingdom. Of course this makes sense given what Paul says, that because of God’s exaltation of Jesus, every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that he is Lord. At the end of time everyone—chief priests and elders, tax collectors and prostitutes, religious and sinners alike—enters in. The difference is that the sinners get it now, and get in early, while the religious folks are busy judging others.
Judging others is in our nature. It started out as blame: Adam blamed Eve who blamed the Snake. But once religion gets introduced, we stop blaming each other and start judging instead. The question is no longer “who sinned first” but “who’s still sinning.” And the easiest measuring stick is religion.
The challenge is that Jesus came to heal sinners, to find the lost, to save the irreligious. He lets the religious keep trying to save themselves. But since he knows they’re sinners also, he keeps inviting them to follow him nonetheless.
Imagine the father’s initial reactions to the responses of his sons. I suspect he was delighted with the second son’s response, “I will go.” And it’s reasonable to assume he was displeased with the first son who said “I won’t go.” But I wonder what else went through his mind. Did he feel like a failure as a parent? Did he plan to introduce some regimen of discipline for the first son? Did he feel like giving up on the first son as a lost cause and investing more in the second?
We don’t know how the parable ends, whether the father rewards the first son who ended up doing it and punishing the second son who only says he’ll do it. The first point of the parable seems to be not how it ends, but what the sons do in the meantime. It’s the contrast between lip service and hand service. Do we just say we’re following Christ, or are we actually doing it?
Another point of the parable seems to be the father’s patience with the sons. He gives them time to change their minds. The father is big enough to be patient, to allow the sons to change, to grow. Or to use religious language, to “repent.”
If we may infer something about God from this parable, it is that God is also patient, allowing time for our change of mind. One of the ways God allows repentance is that he doesn’t judge us according to our past. At one point the people of ancient Israel cried that “the way of the Lord is unfair” because they were being judged according to their ancestors’ misdeeds. Their despair likely led them to think they may as well not even try anymore.
Sometimes we have the same despair. We remember the line in Wordsworth’s poem, “The child is father of the man.” For Wordsworth, this was a pleasant realization—as the child loved rainbows, so the man does also. But if our childhood was traumatic or just negative, or especially if our youthfulness was sinful, we might be tempted to despair like the ancient Israelites and think, “I’m doomed, there is no hope.”
But God responded to the people, “Forget that Bible verse that says I will punish the children for the sins of their parents. Instead, you get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” God reorients us to the present and invites us into faithfulness, regardless of the past. According to the psalm, God is mindful of his mercy and love, and does not remember the sins of our youth. We learn that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, so he calls us now to “turn and live.”
Not only is there time for repentance in God’s patience, but Paul says that, “it is God who is at work enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So God gives us time and power for repentance. This divine work in our lives is the definition of grace. We can’t do it ourselves, so God does it with us.
Jesus is Lord because he is the second son who did the will of his father. We said, “we’ll do it” but then we didn’t. We didn’t because we couldn’t. Jesus said, “I’ll do it” and then he did. He was obedient to death, and so, Paul says, God exalted him and opened the kingdom to everyone. Now, in the power of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ—a power we receive in baptism—God enables us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Because Jesus is Lord, and the kingdom is open, and because God allows and empowers repentance, we are not allowed to judge anyone. We can’t tell if they are first or second sons. They may appear as chief priests and elders to us, or they may appear as sinners. Right now, we’re in the middle of the parable, and we don’t know who’s going in first and who has to wait until his religion is purged out of him.
In the meantime the one person we can judge is ourselves. Are we first or second sons, first or second daughters? Are we saying it but not doing it, or are we living according to God’s will? Only we can answer that for ourselves now.
And thank God that only God, who is patient and faithful, who is mindful of mercy and love, answers that question for us later.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Which son are you and I—church going, sermon summary reading Christians—more likely to be? How would you feel if the sinners you know enter the kingdom ahead of you?
- Are you someone who judges others on the basis of religion? How does this parable invite you to change? How can you grow in grace enough to cease being so judgmental?
- How do you respond to the understanding of grace that says God is patient and forgiving and empowers us to live according to his will?