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Let Two Sons Tell a Story

A Tag Team Sermon by Keith Turner and Rev. Dr. Melissa Pratt


Matthew 21:28-32

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. 32 For 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.


Silent Prayer


The First Son – from “Dead” to “Devoted”

Imagine with me just for a moment. I am sitting at my desk in my bedroom at home fully engrossed in a good book: a book on Reformed theology or maybe a novel by Ernest Hemingway or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Here I am pouring over this book, and in comes Dad, “Keith, you need to weed-eat today.” Knowing that it is something I hate to do, I tell him, “No thank you. I am deeply into For Whom the Bell Tolls and I have no intention of putting it down. You will just have to wait.” Granted, that would never fly at our house, but we are told of another son, much like us, who reacted just that way.

Jesus introduced us to that son in verse 29 of St. Matthew chapter 21. A father desired his son to work for him in his vineyard. The son, belligerent, downright refuses. He says, “I will not.” Though it sounds deliberate, that is not what he really means. His answer in the Greek New Testament implies, “I have no desire to do that. I do not wish to do that.” In Jewish culture, that was simply unacceptable. Jesus’ hearers would have heard this and have rolled their eyes and shaken their heads. A son was never to directly disobey his father. Not only was it a violation of the fourth commandment, “Honor your father and mother”, but it also carried a hefty punishment (in some situations, capital punishment). The Jewish household had a “zero tolerance policy” for rebellious and delinquent children. But Jesus tells us of no punishment that followed. Instead, we are told that the delinquent repented and went to work in the vineyard. While the King James Bible says he “repented”, other translations render this “changed his mind”. Both are acceptable. The verb is intended to show deep regret and remorse for what he had done and a sincere desire to “right” the “wrong”.  And so the rebellious son did. He went forth and got his hands dirty working in his father’s vineyard.

It’s a nice little fable of how children ought to be obedient to their parents, and the importance of being sorry for the bad things you do. But it means something more. As members of the Christian faith, to those who have known the grace of God, we all resonate with this son. We’ve walked in his shoes before.

How? God our heavenly Father has come to us. He has told us to serve him and do the work he has called us to do. But how many times have we been too busy to do it? We don’t want to put the book down. We don’t want to put the soccer ball or basketball down. We don’t want to put our jobs down. Do you see a pattern? We don’t want to put what drives our devotion down to pick up service to God in its place. We say we are devoted to God, but when he says, “Work for me”; we answer, “I have no desire to do that.” Or let’s take it a step further. Weren’t we all at one time consumed in our sin? We devoted ourselves to it. God came near and said, “Follow me.” And we said, “I have no desire to do that.” We loved our sin so much that we didn’t want to serve anything else. Our hearts were driven by it, and we were dead. Life was offered, and we refused. We didn’t seem to mind the hefty consequences associated with it…For the wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23).

But then, all of a sudden, something seemed to change. We finally realized that this sin thing wasn’t worth living for after all. Our hearts were transformed, but we surely didn’t do it. After all, dead people can’t bring themselves back to life. The holy spirit of God took care of that. Our rebellious streak was over. Our lives had been changed. A deep sorrow overwhelmed us.

“God, I’m sorry.” We repented. And with a newfound zeal, we sought to do the work of the Lord, but the fire eventually grew dim after a while. God kept calling, yet other things called louder. When it was all we could stand, “God, I’m sorry”; we repented again.

So what part of the story does the first son tell us? It tells us a story of rebellion and sinfulness colliding with repentance and salvation. We have been there. It’s familiar territory. We all have rebelled, devoted ourselves to sin, and through God’s grace ALONE, have been granted repentance and change. In sum, the first son regretted what he told his father, his refusal to do that which he was called to do. But for some reason, we are never told that he regretted going into the vineyard.

We’re not told that he regretted having a heart change and going into the vineyard because there is no regret in accepting God’s forgiveness and serving Him.  I have never heard a person who has walked with the Lord for years say, “I wish I would have sowed more wild oats.  I wish I would have wasted more time.  I wish I would have delved deeper into sin.  I wish I would have stayed a pew sitter instead of getting involved in serving the Lord.”  No, there is no regret in being right with God and being used by God.

I have heard many, however, lament and in despair say, “I wish I would have given my life to the Lord earlier.  I wish I would have served Him more faithfully.  I wish I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.  I wish I would have told my family or friends about Jesus.”

“Devoted” but Dead.

The second son in the story represents someone whose lips say one thing, but whose life says another.  He appeared to be devoted to the father because he readily responded that he would do what the father asked.  However, he had no intention of making good on his promise.  You might say he was “all talk.”

Many may call themselves “Christians,” but that doesn’t make them devoted in their hearts and with their lives.  It’s not merely about a profession of faith, but it’s also about a demonstration with your life.  Like the men in the parable, God is calling us to work in His vineyard.  As we see the growing number of people who are dismissing the reality of God in their lives, I think we can agree there is more work than ever to be done.  Amen?


“A profession without practice, a promise without performance, these are the greatest enemies of the cause of Christ.” (Neil Lightfoot)


Why did the first son change his position and go to work in his father’s vineyard, but the second dismissed it as if he had never made a commitment in the first place?  It was because the first son had had a change of heart.  He repented in his heart.  Where there is repentance, there is a dynamic faith.  There is passion and energy.  If you come to Jesus with merely lip service or because others have done so or because others are watching you, but you don’t engage your heart, you don’t offer your heart to Christ through repentance, you won’t have the passion and energy and drive and desire to work in the vineyard.  You can’t by-pass your heart in your relationship to God.


The original language tells us that when the first son changed his mind, he didn’t just change his behavior.  You can change your behavior and your heart still not be in what you are doing.  No, not only did he do something different, but he felt something different as well.  Jesus used a word that means to “regret or feel grief about something.”  He let the father’s words, the father’s invitation work their way into his heart and it transformed him.


In Isaiah 29:13 we read, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.

It was popular to go to the temple.  It was exciting to participate in the feasts and special times of worship.  But listen, it’s not about a social gathering, an exciting service or participating in outward forms of religion, but it’s about a heart change that prompts a life change which makes us obedient to the words of the father.  You see, if our heart isn’t in it, we see the salvation and help of God as a blessing, but the work of God and obedience to Him as a burden.  But when your heart has been transformed, doing God’s work is an awesome joy, an amazing adventure and an addiction like no other!

I’m afraid there are many professing Christians whose hearts have grown hard to the will of God.  Being laborers in God’s vineyard, doing the work He has commissioned us to do, serving those in need, sharing the Gospel, sharing our resources, giving for the work of ministry-all are involved in the work for Christ.  Gathering here on Sunday and agreeing that we need to serve and need to be witnesses but not living that mission out is like the second son saying to the father, “I will work for you,” but then doing nothing to make good on his word.


What was missing was heart devotion.  What was missing was heart commitment. Can you imagine knowing you heard a specific command from God and that you lied to Him or just tried to pacify Him by saying what you thought He wanted to hear only to go on your way and do nothing without any kind of remorse or feeling of condemnation?  The thought scares me that there are professing Christians who are constantly disrespecting the Heavenly Father and His commands.  How long will God tolerate that kind of behavior?


Part of the regular discipline in a Christian’s life should be the examination of his or her heart.  Jeremiah 17:9 tells us “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked . . .” That’s why David prayed, “Create in a me a clean heart, O God.”  (Psalm 51:10)  That’s why he asked God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”  (Psalm 139:23)


We’re told in Matthew Matthew 22:34-46. When a lawyer asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment, he immediately said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your mind.”


John 14:15 Jesus also said “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”  Loving God with all our heart means obeying Him all the time.  But it’s not just a “grin and bear it” kind of obedience, but it’s an obedience with passion.  It’s an obedience on purpose.  It’s an obedience with gladness.


Why is it that we can be so passionate about so many things, but when it comes to being passionate about working the father’s vineyard, about following the request of the father that we can find excuse after excuse not to obey?

Thom and I are passionate about our Kentucky Wildcats when it comes to basketball season.  We read up on them, try to get an early look at them, and make a pilgrimage to Rupp Arena at least once a year.  We wear their gear, talk smack about them on Facebook, and try to convert the rest of you to the winning side whenever we have a chance.  We put effort and energy into our hobby.  We don’t miss a game.


It’s alright to be passionate about a sport or hobby, but what I want to know is why don’t we always have the same kind of passion, the same kind of effort and energy when it comes to following through in our relationship to God and in serving Him?  People are passionate about their work, their sports team, their show choir, their favorite political candidate, a new movie or book that is soon to be released, a rock concert they’re attending or making sure they acquire the latest fashions, but where is the same level of intensity and excitement and love for pursuing God’s will and work?


It wouldn’t work to tell the football coach or show choir director or boss that you’d be there for practice or work and then just not show up, right?  How long would you remain on the team or in the choir?  Yet, that kind of lip service is given constantly when the Heavenly Father asks us to work in His vineyard.  Where are our hearts?  Are we truly devoted?


The Living Dead and the Notorious Sinners – Jesus’ Audience

So far, we have been introduced to two sons, each with a story to tell. But who was this parable directed toward? What meaning does it have to the people involved? And what meaning – if any – does it have to us as modern 21st century Christians?

It is clear from the previous verses, that Jesus directed this parable to the chief priests of the temple and the elders of the people. They were religious leaders whose lives were dedicated to preserving and following the law and seeing that everyone else did the same. They were highly respected in Palestinian Judaism. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus observed that the religious elite were some of the most well respected individuals in the community (The Antiquities of the Jewish People 18.1.13). He went on to say that they “had such a great power over the multitude that when they say anything against the king or against the high priest, they were immediately believed (Antiquities 13.10.5). They were known to marginalize members of society who were unfaithful to the Law and to create a polarization between the spiritual “have’s” and “have not’s”. In fact, several chapters over in Matthew 23, Jesus condemned these people for putting heavy loads upon the necks of other men [the Torah and Mishnah] and thereby preventing them from entering into the kingdom of God. They were known to simultaneously impress and suppress others with their “spirituality” and “devotion”.

But Jesus brings another group of people into this conversation: the tax collectors and prostitutes. These people were notorious sinners who were devoted to serving themselves and seeking their own personal gain. While the religious leaders were of the most respected, these sinners were of the most detested. We have before us two groups of people and the chasm between them could not be wider. Yet in the eyes of Jesus, the two were brought so very close together.

The religious leaders made it their mission to challenge the authority of this upstart called Jesus from Nazareth. John Calvin has observed, “The scribes and chief priests insist on…that he is not a lawful minister of God, because he had not been chosen by their votes, as if the power dwelt solely with them.” While they made friends with other members of the society, they most certainly did not find favor with Jesus. Jesus was always being confronted by these people and then confounding them with his responses. In this situation, not only did Jesus place his opponents in a lower state than the notorious sinners, but he also suggested that these notorious sinners both knew and received the Truth and were capable of entering into the Kingdom of God – something unthinkable in the era. By presenting such vile characters as more pious than his opponents, Jesus puts the opponents in the worst possible light. The religious persons believed that they held the truth, just like the second son believed he was doing the will of his father, but Jesus pointed out that they completely disregarded the truth of God when they saw and heard it (most notably in the preaching of John the Baptist and the coming of the Messiah himself).

So, here is the basic sum of the parable:

The first son, who rudely tells his father he doesn’t feel like working today, but then does after all, stands for the tax collectors and prostitutes (notorious sinners). Their daily life seemed to be saying ‘No’ to God; but when they heard John they changed their mind and their lifestyle (in other words, they ‘repented’). The second son, who politely tells his father he will indeed go to work, but then doesn’t, stands for the Temple hierarchy and other leaders. They look as though they are doing God’s will, worshipping in the Temple and keeping up appearances; but they refused to believe John’s message, not only about repentance but also about the Messiah who was standing unknown in their midst. Now the Messiah himself is here to call them into account. Not surprisingly, they don’t like it.

Today, though 2,000 years removed, we can find ourselves in the same boat. We can identify with both of these sons. How often do our lives constantly say ‘No’ to God, but we repent and do our best to live our lives devoted to him? But how many times, too, do we act as though we are doing the will of God, only to deceive ourselves. It is easy to trust in our own capabilities and our own resources as we go about building up God’s kingdom. Bishop William Willimon knows this all too well. He said, “To all of us spiritual eager beavers and God go-getters, it’s a jolt to hear that the kingdom of God is something Christ does, rather than something we do.”

But what is perhaps the greatest message of this parable? It says to all of us who consider ourselves “religious” that nobody, absolutely nobody, is beyond the grace of God. Even the most detested people in our world can hear and receive the truth of God and be made new by his regenerative power. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “God’s infinite grace is greater than our finite minds.” So just when you think that God has this thing for you, loves you, and has bestowed upon you the inalienable right to parade into heaven before everyone else, take a look behind your shoulder, you may be surprised at who’s joining you.


In the passage that precedes this one in Matthew the chief religious leaders asked Jesus some questions about His authority.  They just couldn’t accept that this teacher from Nazareth was the Messiah.  He didn’t look like what they expected.  He didn’t do things the way they anticipated or approved of.

Jesus didn’t answer their questions.  He asked them some questions about John the Baptist and the message of repentance he had been preaching.  The religious leaders hadn’t accepted John either.  They couldn’t accept the fact that they needed to repent in their hearts when they were working tirelessly to keep all of the many religious laws of the time.  They thought they could by-pass their hearts as long as they were committed to outward forms and ritual.

Two concluding words for us:

  • The message of the Gospel is Good News about grace and forgiveness that is free to any who receive, but it still involves repentance.  It involves turning from our sins and obedience to the Word of God.
  • The work of the Father in His vineyard won’t always look conventional.  It won’t always make sense.  What He asks of us doesn’t have to have our stamp of approval, merely our obedience.  If God truly has our heart, we’ll want to live for Him in obedience.

What has your heart?  Where is your passion?  Have you been giving God life service or lip service?  Are you focused on the outward forms of religion, but you are missing  your personal response to the Father’s request to work in His vineyard?  What about your heart?  Is it dead or devoted?  The Messiah is in our midst.  Will we recognize Him?  Will we accept Him?  Will we be devoted to Him with all our heart?

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