The psalmist has written in Psalm 127: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!”
Now I certainly agree with the inspired author of this psalm that children are a blessing. But if you are a parent, then you know that there are also times when you feel like you have to wonder what he was smoking when he wrote he wrote those words. There are times as a parent when children make you want to pull your hair out.
Very high on the list of occasions that cause a parent to feel this way is the scenario in which you tell a child to do something. They acknowledge, that yes, they know they are supposed to do this and will do so. And then, later you see that in fact it has not been done. Now it’s not as if you have asked him or her to discover a cure for cancer or solve the problem of peace in the Middle East. Instead, you asked your child to do something a little more manageable – like put away their clean clothes, or empty the dishwasher, or take out the garbage, or clean their room. You asked. They said yes. And then … they just didn’t do it.
That is exactly the situation that Jesus uses in a question that he addresses to the chief priests and elders of the people in Jerusalem during Holy Week. Our text for tonight follows on from the events that we heard about last Wednesday. Our Lord had entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then proceeded to the temple where he had driven out the money changers and those buying and selling. The next day when he returned to the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” The leaders were stuck. They knew that if they said “from heaven” Jesus would say, “Why then did you not believe him?” However, if they said “from man” they would risk the anger of the people who thought John the Baptist had been a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
However, Jesus then asked them another question that again was related to John the Baptist and his ministry. In our text he asks about a man who had two sons. He said to the first, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son replied curtly, “I will not.” But then later he changed his mind and went to the vineyard to work. The man then said the same thing to the other son. This second son respectfully answered, “I go, sir.” However, he never went to the vineyard to work.
Our Lord then asked a question for which the answer was obvious: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The religious leaders replied “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
The religious leaders claimed to be the obedient sons of God. They thought they had everything figured out – that they had God and his ways figured out. They had it all worked out in ways that made them feel very good about themselves.
Yet when John the Baptist came from God he told them something very different. John appeared in the wilderness and Matthew tells us that Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
However, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to John he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The religious leaders were confident in their status – in who they were. They were the children of Abraham. They knew how things worked with God. They were all set.
John the Baptist roared against this and told them it was garbage. They had it all wrong and their way led to the flames of judgment. Instead, they needed to repent. They needed to return to God in true faith and bear the fruit of faith that flows from repentance.
It’s not hard to act like the Jewish religious leaders. Instead of saying, “We are children of Abraham,” you say: “We are members of the Lutheran Church.” Instead of thinking you have God figured out in how you are to live in order to be saved, you think you have God figured out because you know all the right things you are supposed to believe in order to achieve the same thing. Yet in both cases what is lost is true repentance; what is lost is true faith. And the evidence of this is the absence of the fruit of repentance – the fruit of faith.
However there were others – “sinners” as the religious leaders would have called them – who saw things differently. They heard John’s call to repentance and they knew that they really were sinners. They heard John proclaim: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And they did exactly that. They confessed their sins and they submitted to John’s baptism of repentance because they were looking for God’s kingdom – his reign to arrive.
However, to the religious leaders there at the temple during Holy Week Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
John the Baptist had come and proclaimed his message of repentance; his message that called people to look in faith for God’s saving reign that was about to arrive. The religious leaders had rejected this. The ones who claimed to be the faithful son, had not in fact been faithful. Yet the tax collectors and prostitutes had been convicted in their sin and repented. The son who initially rejected the father’s request, had turned back to faithfulness because of John’s message. Yet now, even when the religious leaders saw this remarkable result, they still didn’t change their minds and believe in John’s message.
Our text tonight reminds us that our true place is with the tax collectors and the prostitutes of our text – with the sinners. We are warned against a false piety that does not know true repentance and faith. We are called to confess what we really are – sinners who have no hope apart from God’s saving action.
In our text, Jesus says that John the Baptist had come in the way of righteousness. Coming out of its Old Testament background this phrase meant that he had come as part of God’s saving action to put all things right. He came as part of God’s plan of salvation as he prepared the way for Jesus the Christ. He called sinner to repent of their sin, and to look in faith to the reign of God which stood near.
During Lent we remember that the saving reign of God entered into the world in the incarnation of the Son of God. As Jesus spoke these words in the temple, the righteousness of God – the saving work of God to put things right – was about to reach its culmination. In just a few days Jesus Christ would go to the cross in order to die for the sins of tax collectors and prostitutes … and you. In the darkness of Good Friday our Lord redeemed you from those sins with his own bitter suffering and death. And then in the first light of Easter Sunday the empty tomb of his resurrection demonstrated that he had defeated death and begun the resurrection that will put all things right on the Last Day.
The saving righteousness of God has arrived in Jesus Christ. So repent. Confess your sin. Believe in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. And join the tax collectors and prostitutes in entering into the kingdom of God.