19th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, “If looks could kill.” Several couples are out for a nice dinner at a restaurant when one husband starts sharing a very embarrassing and personal story about him and his wife. He’s completely oblivious to the ever-increasing redness on his wife’s face and her piercing glare at him. And we think, “If looks could kill.” A little child is in front of a large crowd for some production and begins to act in some very embarrassing way and the mother or father begin to glare and give him stern looks, we think, “If looks could kill.” Have you ever given or received a “look that could kill”?
Now, of course, looks can’t kill, right? Or, can they? Maybe not physically, but what about spiritually? In our text this morning Jesus is addressing the Jewish religious leaders- the Pharisees and teachers of the law – who were plotting to actually kill Jesus. In the eyes of most people they were the elite. They knew what to say and when to say it. They prided themselves in being model citizens and particularly model children of God. They held themselves up as the ideal to which every person ought to look up to, to idealize, to strive to be. If you had questions about God, they were the ones to ask- they knew it all. When it came to the question of who was part of God’s kingdom, they felt they were definite shew ins. Not only did they claim to keep all of the laws of the OT, but they kept hundreds of extra laws that they made up as well. Of all people they felt they deserved God’s favor. They were the religious elite of Jesus’ day.
This happened on Tuesday of Holy Week. A few days before Jesus would be sentenced to death on the cross. The religious elite came to Jesus and asked him this question: Who gave you the authority to do the things that you’re doing? They thought they had Jesus figured out and thought they could trap him in his words and move on in their plot to condemn him. But instead of answering their question and playing their game, Jesus used the opportunity to preach the law to them, show them their sins. He said, “Ok, I’ll ask you a question and if you answer it, I’ll answer your question. Did John the Baptist operate by his own authority or by God’s authority?” The chief priests and elders reasoned together and thought, “Hmm…if we say from God, Jesus will ask us why we didn’t believe his message. But if we say from men, then we’ll have an angry mob on our hands because everyone except us believes John was a prophet from God.” So, they tried to play it safe and said, “We don’t know.” Jesus responded by telling them, “Ok, then I’m not going to answer your question.” But then Jesus told them this parable.
A father said to one son, “Go and work in the vineyard.” His son flatly refuses and says, “I will not.” But later that son changes his mind and goes to work. The father tells the other son, “Go and work in the vineyard.” The other son, almost without a breath, says, “Yes, sir! I will!” But then doesn’t go. And Jesus asked them, “Which son did what the father wanted?” That’s the question? Are you kidding! What a simple question to answer! It’s obvious! No one would pick the second son, he obviously didn’t take his father seriously, didn’t give one wit about what his father wanted, spoke with his lips but never followed through, he disobeyed, clearly the first one. And with that Jesus’ enemies convicted themselves. They were the second son. The first son was obedient, the second disobedient. They were the lip-service-second son.
They sat in the temple, in God’s house, and seemed to say all the right things. They looked so dignified, so religious, so much better than everyone else. Yet, they rejected John’s message, they rejected Jesus’ message, and they didn’t get the message when all the “worst” of sinners were listening and repenting. They were quick to claim God as their father, quick to show their allegiance to God, quick to claim that they were Abraham’s sons, but all the while they ignored the fact that they were sinful, that they needed a Savior, and they failed to see the Savior when he was standing right in front of them! If looks could kill, I can imagine them glaring at Jesus. But the reality is, their looks were killing them! They looked all the part of the dutiful, religious, good son, but it was mere lip service. They thought their outward living earned them God’s favor. Their looks were killing them.
The answer was the first son. But why? At first glance it sure doesn’t seem like that son was all that obedient to his father. I mean, he flatly refused right? “I will not.” Boldly, unashamedly, blunt, rude. He shows no love for his father, doesn’t care what his father wants, and has no desire to please his father so he openly refused. But the difference between him and his brother is this: later he felt sorry, he repented, came to his senses, changed his mind, realized his wrong attitude and action, and went and did what his father wanted. Tax collectors and prostitutes were considered the “worst” of sinners of Jesus’ day and the lowest social class. In fact, many in the religious realm felt there was no need to minister to them because they were a lost cause. It is important to note that Jesus is in no way commending their sinful behavior: Tax collectors who skimmed off the top, made tons of money by collecting way more than what was due in order to fill their own pockets and satisfy their greed. Jesus wasn’t commending prostitutes who treated their bodies with contempt and led others into sin and lust.
Jesus’ point is this: the first son is the representative of all those who repent of their sin. Every sinner who looks at the way they’ve been living and then looks at God’s commands and says, “I’m doomed. I’ve been acting exactly opposite of what God wants me to do! God should cast me out of his sight forever!” It’s this son who listens to the message of John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of God is near! Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins! Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Now produce fruits of repentance as the dearly loved children of God that you are!”
But now the question each one of us has to ask is: Which son are you? Which son am I? Before we point our fingers we have to examine our own lives. Are our looks killing us? Do we at times have an attitude similar to the lip service son? If we think that honoring God with our lips is good enough while our hearts are far from him, then our looks can kill us. If we’ve done the right things, but for the wrong reasons, our looks can kill us. If we’ve become so enamored with how well-ordered and in place our lives are compared with all the undesirable people in the world, then our looks can kill. If we think we’ve learned all we need to about God and His Word and that we don’t have much need of sitting at Jesus’ feet, then our looks can kill us. If we’ve ever come to church with the attitude that God should be so proud of us that we’ve given up our precious time for him, then our looks can kill us.
Ouch, right? Jesus’ parable hits home to each one of us. Instead of reforming us or making us better God took the whole lot of us, every sinner, every criminal and thief and every sexually immoral and put us all in one big lot and none of us deserves anything good from God or is any better than another. Instead of reforming us, God condemned us and said the “soul who sins is the one who will die.” Ouch.
But notice who took the initiative in the parable, it was the father. In God’s dealings with us God always takes the initiative, he always makes the first move. Notice also the terms the father uses to address his sons- in the Greek it’s actually “child” it’s a word that denotes tender love, compassion, and affection. It is always God’s tender love and compassion that He’s shown us that causes us to “have a change of mind” to repent and to trust in him for total and complete forgiveness. Yes, each one of us is the child who at many times didn’t do what God wanted us to do. But by God’s grace he has led us to see our sin and our need for a Savior.
So which of the two sons did what the Father wanted? Actually neither. The third Son of the parable did. The third son of the parable both said and did exactly what the father wanted. He did not hesitate to follow the father’s bidding and did exactly everything the father asked of him. The Father wanted the third Son to go into the vineyard, go into the world and be perfect and holy in every way. The Father wanted the third Son to suffer the punishment his brothers and sisters rightly deserved, and he did. The father wanted the third Son to give up his life as a ransom on a cross to buy back his brothers and sisters from their sin and he did. Do you see the third Son in the parable? The third Son was speaking this parable- it was Jesus! Jesus humbled Himself to work in the vineyard and humbled himself to be obedient to the Father in every way- obedient to death- even death on the cross. It was there on the cross where God the Father took the whole lot of sinful humanity including you and transferred your sins on to his own son who paid for them in full. It was there on the cross where God declared you innocent and not guilty. And God raises His Son Jesus from the dead to prove to you and me that Jesus has won the victory and is exalted to the highest place. Yes it is because of the third Son that God adopted disobedient children like you and me back into his family through faith. Which son did what the father wanted? Yes it was the third son, Jesus, and since Jesus did that in your place for you, God now looks at you and sees you as His own perfect and obedient child. It’s by pondering this third Son that I learn to say not just with my lips but also with my whole life: I will Father. And that’s repentant living. Amen.