Now, what do you think? There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ ‘I don’t want to,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. ‘Yes, sir,’ he answered, but he did not go.
Which one of the two did what his father wanted?…I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.
Yesterday on Day 182 the chief priests and teachers of the Law asked Jesus who gave him the right to make a dramatic entrance into Jerusalem, clear the moneychangers out of the Temple, heal the blind and crippled, and teach unorthodox theology.
Jesus responds by bringing up the martyrdom of John the Baptist, which puts the religious authorities in a very tricky position. John had been murdered by King Herod and they were afraid his angry followers might start a riot if they continued to challenge Jesus publicly. Although Jesus won the argument, he continued to defend John’s ministry and accuse the religious authorities for failing to receive John’s message.
John the Baptist was a prophet, and his ministry was three-fold. First, he came to say that God was unhappy with the religious leaders and practices of the day and that change was in the wind. Second, he urged people to repent and seek God more diligently. As a symbol of this fresh start he encouraged people to be baptized. Third, he endorsed Jesus as the one appointed by God to show them what they should do and alleviate their suffering.
In this parable Jesus says that “the older son” represents the religious establishment. The Jews believed that they were doing the will of God by following the letter of Law of Moses documented in the Torah. They believed that meticulous observance of the Law was what was important to God. They were committed to doing the right thing, but Jesus says that they have missed the mark by failing to receive John’s message and heed his warning. John the Baptist said that God likes humble and repentant spirit. Jesus says that God wants to establish a true, intimate relationship with humanity that is not based on adherence a set of laws. In the parable “the older son,” the religious establishment, says that it is committed to doing God’s will, but it really is not willing to establish that true relationship that God wants.
“The younger son” represents the followers of John the Baptist, the outcasts like tax collectors and prostitutes who have repentant hearts and are humbly seeking a real relationship with God and are therefore engaged with doing his true will. They don’t talk about how holy they are; they just try to do the best they can to show love and kindness to others.
Jesus says that even though they didn’t understand what John was talking about at first, the religious establishment should have rallied behind him when they saw how people were responding to his message. They should have seen that John’s ministry was bearing good fruit and producing sincere believers and changed lives. They should have seen that the followers of John the Baptist were pure of heart even though their actions many not have been perfect. They should have seen it, but they didn’t.
Even though they didn’t do the right thing, does Jesus say that the legalistic religious community will go to hell? No, but he says that the outcasts, the nasty people that the religious people look down on, the people they routinely exclude will be the first to be received into God’s kingdom: ”the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Certainly the death of John the Baptist was one of the things that spurred Jesus on with his own ministry. The injustice of his murder and the lack of repercussions or outcry by the religious establishment was a horrible indictment of both Jewish society and humanity in general. Jesus knows that he will meet the same fate, and that he knows that murder is a violation of the God’s Law. He knows that murder in the name of religion is not the will of God. It recalls the prophecy of Isaiah, which, like this parable, refers to the Jewish people as a vineyard:
Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Almighty; the people of Judah are the vines he planted. He expected them to do what was good, but instead they committed murder. He expected them to do what was right, but their victims cried out for justice (Isaiah 5:7).
The chief priests and elders had good intentions. They certainly intended to do the will of God, but they weren’t listening to him. If they had been listening to God they would have been fans of John the Baptist. They would have been fans of Jesus. But they were not. They were enemies of Jesus, very much involved in his demise. While they were seeking to please God by performing sacrifices in the Temple, God was out in the streets with Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey. God was with Jesus in the Temple as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. God was there with Jesus as he healed the blind and the crippled and taught about the Kingdom of God. But they missed it. They committed their lives to serving God but when he called they didn’t show up. They were too engaged with keeping the Temple fires burning and finding fault in their fellow man. It’s a hazard of organized religion. You can lose touch not only with the world – you can also lose touch with God.
Unfortunately good intentions are not good enough. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, a good citizen must have more than good intentions. A good citizen must be in constant communication with God to determine the immediate will of God for each unique life situation. You can’t do the right thing if you aren’t listening to what God has to say. You can’t really follow Jesus if you don’t accept what he has to say. Talk is cheap and rules are easy. True relationship is hard and requires work, not just symbolic gestures and statements of intent. It requires a good attitude. And an open mind. And love. True relationship requires a lot of love. Jesus tells us that love and kindness are what God is really looking for.
What does this scripture say to you?