The 18th Sunday After Trinity September 25, 2005
782 [TLH alt. 541], 342, 371, 395
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
[Jesus told a parable saying], “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” [The chief priests and elders] said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”
In Christ Jesus, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, dear fellow Christians:
Are you a child of God? Is God pleased with you? Without a moment’s hesitation, you might answer, “Yes!” But how can you be so sure of your standing with God? Do you point to a certain feeling you have of being saved? Is it because of an extraordinary spiritual experience in your life? Are you sure because you were born into a Christian family, or because you were confirmed? How can you be sure? It’s a question which cannot be taken lightly, for Scripture warns that not all who think they are members of God’s kingdom really are. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NIV). To be certain of our standing with God, we need to know what God’s will is, and how it is accomplished in our lives.
The Lord Jesus reveals the answer in the form of a parable. In the story a father went to his two sons and said, “Go and work today in the vineyard.” One of the sons immediately replied, “I will, sir!” You can picture him going out the door, running to the tool shed, grabbing a spade and pruning hook, and heading off for the vineyard. The problem was, he never got there. In spite of his eager words, he didn’t go. He didn’t mean what he said. We all know people like that who promise great things, but never follow through.
The Jewish ruling class, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, were like this son. They said all the right words. They professed their deep love for God. They knew their Bibles, and made sure others noticed how much they prayed. They were very religious people, and yet they were not pleasing to God. He explained why: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13 NIV). In spite of all their good words, they were not doing God’s will. Through John the Baptist, God had called on them to repent, to have a change of heart. Instead of relying on their own goodness to get them into God’s kingdom, the Lord wanted them to realize the depth of their sin, and put their faith in Christ for salvation. But like the son in the parable, they wouldn’t do it.
There are still many people who are very religious and who call themselves Christians, but who refuse to accept God’s way of salvation. They know the Bible, but reject what it says about their natural spiritual condition. They sing songs of praise to Christ, and call Him Lord and Savior, and yet their hearts are far from God, for they trust that by right living, being a good person, keeping the commandments, and loving others, they will please God and get to heaven. That is not the kind of worship God wants. He is not impressed with human efforts to gain righteousness. “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV). Those who are followers of Christ only in word will hear him say at the Judgment: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23 NIV).
The father also told the other son to go and work in the vineyard. At first he flatly refused, but later changed his mind and went. The tax collectors and prostitutes were like this son. They represented the lowest class of Jewish society. They were usually just referred to as “sinners.” By their wicked lifestyles, they had said no to God, and placed themselves outside of His kingdom. In the minds of the Jewish rulers, there was no hope for these people. Why would God want them?
But then a miraculous change took place! These people heard John’s preaching of impending judgment upon sin, and they took it to heart. They looked at their lives, admitted before God that they were sinners who deserved His punishment, and put their faith in God’s plan of salvation. That is what God wanted. In that way tax collectors and prostitutes became pleasing to God, and entered His kingdom ahead of the self-righteous religious leaders.
The invitation of the heavenly Father goes out to all people. Jesus tells His followers: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15 NIV). Here and in thousands of other churches the Lord reaches out with His news of divine love, forgiveness, and hope. What does He want? He wants everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. He wants people who not only say yes with their mouths, but who believe with their hearts. The sad truth, though, is that we cannot do it for ourselves. By nature we are dead in trespasses and sins. We cannot, and we do not even want to repent and trust in God’s forgiveness.
Two sons are pictured in Jesus’ parable, but it is only through a third Son that we are brought into God’s family. God the Father called His only-begotten Son to go to work, and unlike the son who at first refused, Jesus said, “Yes.” He became one of us in order to love and serve the Father in all the ways we should, but are not able to. He humbled Himself for us, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross! His love for the Father was not just words. He put it into action by taking all the world’s sin on Himself and suffering death for us all.
Because of Jesus’ atoning life, death, and resurrection, we are led to say, “yes,” to God, and to do His will. He moves us to admit that we are guilty of sin, and to see that it is not always somebody else’s fault. Sin is not just a little thing. Just because everyone else does it, does not make it right with God. To repent is to hit rock bottom, and confess that in God’s eyes we deserve to be included in the category of “sinners,” along with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and murderers.
God wants to bring us down that low, so that He can lift us up with the glorious news of what Jesus has accomplished for us. No matter what sins lie in the past or how many there are, they are washed clean by Jesus’ blood. God the Judge pronounces the sinner “Not guilty” for Jesus’ sake. He wants all people to have the perfect holiness of Christ, rather than trust in their own feeble efforts. That is why He pleaded with Israel: “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall…Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone…Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:30ff NIV).
When the heart has changed from trust in one’s own abilities and goodness to trust in the righteousness of Christ, then one’s words and actions also reflect God’s will. Instead of serving self, we want to serve the Savior. Paul writes: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV).
The Pharisees viewed their worship and keeping of the commandments as an obligation which they had to fulfill in order for God to keep His part of the bargain and grant them eternal life. Many today go through life with the same perspective. They see it as their duty to go to church, read the Bible, and be good to others, and then God will reward them for their efforts. It is not at all a joyful kind of service to God, but rather one motivated by fear and obligation.
What does God want? He wants lives of service devoted to Him out of joy and thanksgiving. To attend church and read the Bible to earn credit with God is not pleasing to Him. How can it be when He says all the credit we need was earned by Jesus on the cross? To serve God because we “have to” does not honor the Lord. He sent His Son to do everything needed for our salvation, so that we would “want to” live for Him in gratitude. Our sins are paid for! Everything is right with God! Heaven is ours! We want to live for the Lord!
Just as the father in the parable wanted his sons to work in the vineyard pruning and tending the vines, so the Lord has work for each of us in His kingdom. While we’re growing up, we work for the Lord when we honor and obey our parents. We show our thankfulness to Him by being a cheerful, helpful, loving member of the family. When you willingly do your Sunday school and catechism work, you are working for the Lord.
As adults we work for the Lord when we do our jobs conscientiously because we love Jesus. We work for Him by showing love and consideration for our husband or wife, and by being kind to those around us. The Lord calls us to work wherever we are: at home, school, office, church, the mall, or anywhere else. It is not just a part-time activity. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23 NIV). “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:3 NIV).
What does God want? He wants His Word proclaimed in the farthest corners of the world, so that everyone will hear the news of His love and forgiveness in Christ. He wants that Word to take root in hearts, so that through repentance and faith, people find their righteousness in Jesus, and not in their own imagined goodness. He wants faith to be seen in lives of willing, grateful service. May our Christianity be a matter of trust in God’s grace and obedience from the heart, and not just empty words. Then we can be sure that we truly are children of God, pleasing to Him in Christ!Amen.
Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed His blood for me;
Died that I might live on high,
Lived that I might never die.
As the branch is to the vine,
I am His, and He is mine.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.