The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2023
A Story of Spiritual Insincerity!
23Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28“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.’
29“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For 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.” (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We’ve all met them. Whether it’s at work or at school, whether it’s in the neighborhood or perhaps even in our own circle of family and friends, we’ve all met someone who portrays themselves as being very kind, very interested in you and in what you are doing, very willing to help you in one way or another, but after a while we come to realize— sometimes the hard way— that it was all for show. When they are out of earshot and out of view of others we find out that they are not the type of person they portrayed themselves to be. We might come to the conclusion that they are fake, or they are a sham, or they are simply insincere!
Unfortunately, what we sometimes see taking place at work or at school, in our neighborhood or in our circle of family and friends, can also take place on a spiritual level. Today as we continue our sermon series entitled Jesus, Tell Us a Story! let’s listen with both our ears and our hearts as Jesus tells us: A Story of Spiritual Insincerity!
What is spiritual insincerity? Jesus gives us a real-life example of what He considers to be spiritual insincerity in the opening portion of our text. Look at verses 23-27. It was Tuesday of Holy Week. Two days earlier Jesus had triumphantly ridden into the City of Jerusalem amidst shouts of, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9) On Monday of Holy Week Jesus cleansed His heavenly Father’s house, the Temple in Jerusalem, by overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out those who were buying and selling animals. After Jesus had cleansed the Temple Matthew tell us, ‘The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14). Matthew also tells us that the children in the Temple once again began shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Do you remember how the chief priests and the teachers of the law reacted to all of this? They became “indignant” and “began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him” (Mark 11:18).
All of this led the chief priests and the elders of the people to come to Jesus while He was in the Temple on that Tuesday morning and they demanded to know, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered their question with a question of His own. Matthew tells us, “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?”
These men were the spiritual leaders of Israel. Outwardly these men appeared to be righteous in the eyes of the common folk,. These men knew all the right words to say and all the right ways to act. But when they discussed/debated amongst themselves how to answer Jesus they quickly realized that they had a problem: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men— we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So how did they respond? They said to Jesus, “We don’t know.” That is spiritual insincerity! The men who portrayed themselves as being so sincere in their faith, the men who openly wore a mantle of piety for everyone to see, the men who were absolutely confident in their own righteousness were so afraid to answer Jesus’ question that they said, “We don’t know.” In an effort to not only point out to these men that they were being spiritually insincere, but to also call them to repent of their spiritual insincerity, Jesus told the chief priests and the elders of the people a story. We call it the Parable of the Two Sons.
Once again this story, this parable, is both very easy to understand and very easy to remember. A father has two sons. He goes to one of his sons and says, “’Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.” This son is not only very blunt, but he is also very rude to his father. He doesn’t sugar-coat his lack of willingness to do what his father had asked him to do. But then he has a change of heart! Perhaps he started thinking about all that his father has done for him over the course of the years. Perhaps he remembered the consistent love that his father had shown him throughout his life. Whatever led him to have a change of heart, he humbly did what his father had asked him to do.
The second son’s reaction is the polar opposite, isn’t it. Jesus’ story continues, “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will sir,’ but he did not go.” The response of this son is smooth. It is slick. It is even very respectful— he addresses his father as “sir.” Outwardly, the father was undoubtedly delighted to hear this response— especially after the rude response of his other son! The second son gives the impression that he was eager and ready to grab whatever tools he needed and rush out to work in his father’s vineyard. His willingness and his obedience to do what his father had asked was breathtaking! But it was all for show. His insincerity is made clear with the words, “but he did not go.”
In a simple yet powerful way Jesus then looks at the chief priests and the elders of the people and asked them, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Note how Jesus emphasizes not what each son said, but what each son did. The chief priests and the elders of the people knew that there was only one way to answer Jesus’ question— “The first.” This is where Jesus brings out the main point of this parable. This is where Jesus uses this simple easy-to-understand story to reveal to the chief priests and the elders of the people their own spiritual insincerity. Look at verses 31 and 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 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.’”
Jesus very clearly explains that the first son represents the “tax collectors and the prostitutes”— the people who were considered to be the lowest of the low in Jewish society. The “tax collectors and the prostitutes” were blatant sinners whose lifestyle loudly and clearly revealed that they were responding to the heavenly Father’s will with an emphatic “I will not!” attitude. They were going to go their own way and live their own life however they wanted— no matter what the heavenly Father said! But then, like the first son in Jesus’ story, they had a change of heart. Through the preaching of John the Baptist, through the ministry of Jesus the Christ they realized what the heavenly Father had done for them, they realized what the heavenly Father was now doing for them, and they repented of their sins. They changed their sinful lifestyle, and they received the forgiveness which guaranteed them entrance into the “kingdom of God.”
The chief priests and the elders of the people, however, were like the second son. On the outside they looked all pious and righteous. They knew all the right words to say, they conducted their life in a way that made it appear that they were indeed following the will of the heavenly Father. But it was all a show. It was all a sham. When God looked into their hearts He could see that they did not practice what they preached. He could see that they were being spiritually insincere.
The fact that Jesus was using this story to lovingly call the chief priests and the elders of the people to repent of their spiritual insincerity is brought out in Jesus’ words, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Note that Jesus did not say to the chief priests and the elders of the people that the “tax collectors and the prostitutes” were entering the kingdom of God instead of them but ahead of them! There was still time for these men to heed John’s call to repent and to trust in Jesus as the Promised Messiah!
So how does this parable apply to you and to me? Let me suggest that we have not truly listened to this parable unless it causes us to probe our own spiritual lives. Are we like the first son who rudely rejected doing his father’s will and then had a change of heart and humbly went to work in the father’s vineyard? When we look into the pages of God’s holy Word we see that the answer to that question is— Yes! By nature we were all born rebellious children who rudely rejected doing what our heavenly Father wants us to do. Then the Holy Spirit came into our hearts through His holy Word and His holy Sacrament, He pointed us to what our Savior-God has done for us and He caused us to have a change of heart. He created the gift of saving faith in our heart and now that faith empowers us to openly live our life in a way that is pleasing to Him (Pointing to the cross) and to joyfully work in the vineyard of His Church!
Unfortunately, we still have that old sinful nature living and lurking inside of us. That old sinful nature is constantly trying to get us to say “No!” to our God by doing things that we know are displeasing to Him and by not doing the things we know our God wants us to do. Whenever our old sinful nature tries to assert itself in our hearts and in our lives we need to follow the example of “the tax collectors and the prostitutes.” We need to repent of our sins, trust in the forgiveness that Jesus secured for us on the cross (Pointing to the cross) and strive with God’s help to walk in what Jesus describes as “the way of righteousness.”
As we probe our own spiritual life we may also see that at times we are like the second son. On the outside we appear to be pious and righteous and obedient. We know all the right words to say. We live decent, respectable and upright lives. But in our hearts we are rather proud of our own righteousness. In our hearts we quietly wish others would be more like us. To put it very simply, we don’t always practice what we preach.
What are we to do when we realize that sometimes we are way too much like the second son? Once again, we follow the example of “the tax collectors and the prostitutes.” We repent of our spiritual insincerity; we trust in the forgiveness that Jesus secured for us on the cross (Pointing to the cross) and we strive with His help to live in a way that openly professes a sincere love and thankfulness to our God for all that He has done for us.
There is one more point that needs to be emphasized from this text. Just as Jesus did not write off the chief priests and the elders of the people because of their spiritual insincerity and just as Jesus used “the tax collectors and the prostitutes” as an example of how completely God forgives everyone who repents of their sins— no matter how horrible or how deplorable their sins might be— so also we need to do the same. If we come across someone who has openly lived their life in rebellion against God’s will we point them to the cross and assure them that Jesus died to pay for their sins. In the same way, if we come across someone who is proud and self-righteous because of how well they are doing when it comes to living a God-pleasing life, we point them to the cross and remind them of what Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
We can relate to the chief priests and the elders of the people because we all have a proud self-righteous sinful nature living and lurking inside of us. We can relate to the “tax collectors and the prostitutes” because from God’s perspective our sins are just as abhorrent as theirs. Now let’s strive to relate to Jesus as He reached out to everyone with love and mercy and forgiveness.
We’ve all met them. We’ve all met someone who portrays themself as being kind and helpful and understanding— only to come to realize that it’s all for show. This happens on both an earthly level as well as on a spiritual level. May God grant that Jesus’ story of spiritual insincerity will lead us to daily kneel before His cross (Pointing to the cross) and in all sincerity pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!”
To God be the glory!