“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
“‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.
“The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.
“Which one of these two did his father’s will?”
They said, “The first one.”
Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him. (Common English Bible)
Contemporary persons aren’t the only ones who want to know whose in and whose out; it’s been around forever.
In the ancient world of Jesus, people were always concerned about conformity to the established system and society of the way things are. For religious folk, who gets in and who gets left out was an important issue .So, Jesus decided to tell a parable about entrance into the kingdom of God.
Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders who are the true inheritors of the kingdom.
The parable, at its core, is a warning to all the spiritually serious insiders: Beware, lest your energies be spent in correctness of behavior, conformity of belonging, and cockiness of belief rather than following Jesus. And, at the same time, the parable encourages spiritually estranged outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life.
Far too many people arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will.
It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive Christ’s story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:
There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles.
The other son was not so successful. He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an “alternative lifestyle” and people murmured behind his back.
One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.
The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.” But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.
After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, the religiously different with esoteric beliefs, immigrants from other countries, ex-convicts living in half-way houses, and persons with addictions are all entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.
For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did. And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.
It was parables like this that created a religious scandal and eventually got Jesus killed.
The offense for many upstanding citizens is this: that their right doctrine and clean living is not the way of salvation.
Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was simply assumed they were on the outside and would be judged by God.
However, the proof of genuine faith is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:
My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you?
If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help?
Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!
Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.”
You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)
The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.
If we have the spiritual ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark.
If we have the spiritual eyes to see, we can observe people overwhelmed with life circumstances standing in front of us.
If we have the spiritually strengthened hands willing to labor, we can support needy folks around us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.
Whenever we take the focus off who is in and who is out, then without judgment and a heart full of compassion, we can address the:
- Loneliness of so many people living alone and dying alone.
- Shame which thousands secretly carry every day.
- Pain of broken bodies, broken hearts, broken spirits, and broken minds experienced by individuals everywhere.
The Lord Jesus feels the loneliness, shame, and pain of people – which is why he told a parable like he did. Christ is looking to activate grace through his people, the church, to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.
Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that flings open the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.
There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:
David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)
This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence.
Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21, NRSV)
In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed.
Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call. Amen.