Changing Your Mind About The Kingdom
– Matthew 21:23-32 NIV’84:
“23 Jesus 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?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’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.”
27 So 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. 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.”
The Dilemma of Political Correctness
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day – the elders, as they are called in this passage – suffered from the same problem that many of our politicians suffer from today: refusing to take a position because it would offend someone.
At this point in Matthew’s account, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, and is teaching in the Temple courts. Jesus’ teaching in the Temple is not the equivalent of someone else coming in here to preach and elbowing me out. The Temple was a much larger complex than our church building here. The courts were said to cover almost a third of the city of Jerusalem. Scholars estimate that the Temple area was approximately 500,000 square feet, or about 12 acres, although there are some who believe it was much larger.
There were a series of colonnades, or porches, plus the Court of the Gentiles which was the largest plaza-like space; then the Court of the Women, where only women were admitted; and finally the Court of Israel, where only Jewish men were admitted.
In all probability Jesus was teaching in the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. This is the same area from which he expelled the money changers and merchants when he declared that “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer [for all nations], but you have made it a den of thieves.”
Jesus has gathered at least a small crowd, as he frequently did just by his presence. No doubt many are asking him questions, wanting to know more about this man who could heal, and cast out demons, feed people, and command nature to obey him.
However, the Temple was the domain of the religious establishment. It was one thing for Jesus to preach and teach on the hills of Judea, or beside the Jordan River, or from a boat in the Sea of Galilee, because that’s where the rabble – the common people – were. But now Jesus had come into the largest city in the land of Judea, Jerusalem. He was in the heart of the domain of the chief priest, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Saduccees, the Sanhedrin, and all of the other assembled cast of those who dominated the Jewish people both politically and religiously.
John the Baptist had earned the ire of the religious establishment by drawing great crowds out of Jerusalem with his calls for repentance, and baptism as its sign. This was an affront to the religious order of the day because the Temple was thought to be the very throne of God. Devout Jews, religious leaders among them, believed that the Holy of Holies was the residence of God Almighty, or God of the Angel Armies as Eugene Peterson translates that title in the Message Bible.
The Temple was where offerings for individual sin or offerings for thanksgiving, or cleansing had to be made. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the nation would gather for the annual ritual when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of all the people.
The giant candelabra burned day and night signifying the light of God. The bronze laver accommodated the ceremonial cleansing practiced by the priests who ministered in the Temple. And the gigantic bronze altar was the spot upon which sacrifice was offered to Israel’s God.
It was unthinkable that anyone, any Jew at least, could conceive of worshipping or serving God without being in the Temple to do so.
But John the Baptist had done just that. John had drawn people away from the Temple, away from the stranglehold the religious establishment had on them, until it cost him his life. And the people held John the Baptist in high esteem, both for his straight-to-the-point sermons, and his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas.
So when the elders come to Jesus, on their own turf, and ask him by what authority he did what he did, they really meant, “Who gave you permission to carry on like this?”
Realizing that their intention was to trap him, Jesus asked them a question in reply. “Was John’s baptism from heaven or from men?” (When Matthew uses the word “heaven” he often means “God,” because the Jews did not pronounce or write the name of God. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel the kingdom of God is referred to as the kingdom of heaven.)
Immediately the religious officials knew that Jesus had them in a bind. If they gave their own opinion, they would surely have said, “John’s preaching was a man-made publicity stunt.” Or something like that. But they knew that the people standing around Jesus held John in very high esteem.
But, on the other hand, if they answered, “John’s preaching was from God (or heaven),” then the next question would have been, “Well, then, why didn’t you listen to him?”
So, they were in a spot. Realizing that there was no good way out, they simply answered, “We don’t know.”
Jesus knew that their answer was not one of genuine confusion, but rather their answer was a dodge, a cowardly response to a question that put them on the spot.
Appropriately, Jesus replies, “Then I’m not going to tell you where my authority comes from either.”
A Story of Two Responses to the Kingdom of God
With that reply, Jesus tells them a story. A father had two sons. To the first son the father said, “Go and work in the vineyard.” The first son refused, but later changed his mind and went after all.
To the second son, the father also said, “Go and work in the vineyard.” This son immediately said, “Okay, I’ll go.” But then he never showed up.
Jesus asked the question then, “Which one of the sons did what the Father asked?”
Even the religious leaders knew the answer to this one – “The first one,” they replied.
Then Jesus answered 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.”
Wow. Prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of God ahead of those who have devoted themselves to maintaining the religious institutions of Judaism.
That would be the equivalent of saying to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches, and the leaders of evangelical denominations, not to mention all the priests and pastors within all of those faith traditions — “Those who have broken the laws of morality and common decency are going to get into the kingdom of God and you’re not.”
That was pretty strong language. Of course, when we hear Jesus’ words, we immediately are glad that we’re not like the religious leaders of his day. But are we like the prostitutes and tax collectors, because that’s the only other group mentioned here?
Here’s the point that Jesus was making. The second son whose father asked him to go work in the vineyard represented the religious leaders. The second son quickly told the father he would go work. In other words, the second son verbally said, “Yes” to the father. But his actions said, “No.”
Psychologists and social scientists have observed the phenomena among groups that will sometimes agree to what their leader is asking, only to balk at actually carrying out the leader’s plan. They call this “say yes, do no” kind of behavior.
That’s exactly what the religious leaders were doing. They gave lip service to God and God’s rule and reign, but the reality was that when John the Baptist came along they saw John as a threat to both their position and standing, and their form of religious life.
The first son, the one who refused to go to the vineyard, were those who made no pretense about obedience to God. Prostitutes who sold their bodies in violation of the Law of God, and of common human decency; and, tax collectors who cheated their own people, thereby breaking some of the Commandments themselves.
Of course, these were just representative of those who lived life as if God did not exist or matter.
But then, just as in the story of the two sons, something changes their minds. In this case, it was John the Baptist. John preached a message of repentance, of turning around, of being accountable to God, or living according to God’s Law, or being the people of God.
We might stretch this parable to say that the vineyard is the nation of Israel, or even the Kingdom of God, and that those who show up to work are either the true people of God, or those who have entered the Kingdom. But the important point is that they eventually did what they at first had refused to do. In other words, they changed their minds about the kingdom of God.
Two Stories About Two Men Who Changed Their Minds About the Kingdom
The first person I thought about when I started thinking about this sermon was the late Sam Kinison. Sam Kinison was born in 1953, to a mother and father who were both Pentecostal preachers. Kinison himself became a Pentecostal preacher, and attended Bible college to further prepare for ministry.
After a failed first marriage, Kinison was serving as a youth pastor when he became fixated on stand-up comedians. “I can do that,” Kinison is reported as saying. And the rest is history.
Kinison’s comedy act was often vile, profane, and frequently ridiculed Christianity. His license plate read, “Ex Rev,” and Kinison sought to distance himself from his former profession in his lifestyle. He developed a well-known appetite for drugs and alcohol, hung out with rockers in the LA scene, and simply became the exact opposite of everything that he once said he believed.
Sadly, Kinison was killed in an automobile accident in 1992, just 5 days after marrying his third wife. I remember watching Kinison’s MTV music video, which was a remake of the rock song, “Wild Thing.”
The Jim and Tammy Bakker scandal has just unfolded, and Jessica Hahn was making the rounds of the talkshow circuit, and enjoying her 15 minutes of fame. In the music video, as Kinison sang the lyrics, Jessica Hahn danced provocatively (I’m trying to keep this G-rated).
Kinison was killed not long after that video aired. I don’t know why I thought of Sam Kinison, and certainly consider it a tragedy that he was killed before he could reconsider the choices he had made in his life. But Kinison is an extreme example of those who said, “I’ll go” but then turn back.
Of course, there are stories that are the opposite of Kinison’s. You probably haven’t heard of Brian Welch. Brian’s friends and fans call him “Head” and he was the lead guitarist and co-founder of Korn, a really loud and very popular band that brought Brian lots of money and lots of fame.
But in the midst of all the glitz and glamor of a rockstar’s life, Brian knew something was missing. He tried to cover up the pain and failures in his own life with drugs and alcohol. But when his daughter Jeanae was born, Brian began to question his own lifestyle.
It would take several years, and lots of setbacks before Brian would find a way to turn his life around. The moment of truth came after his wife left him with Jeanae, and he heard his preschool daughter singing one of Korn’s songs. The song was titled ADIDAS, which stood for “All day I dream about sex.” Brian knew something in his life had to change.
Tired of the drugs, the alcohol, the parties, the pain, and what he was doing to his own daughter, Brian attended a church service with friends of his one night. That night he prayed to receive Christ, and then went home and promptly did some more drugs. But during that night he prayed for God to take the drugs from him, because he couldn’t quit on his own.
In an intense week of drug use and Bible reading, Brian experienced the presence of God in a way that he had not before. “The first thing I felt was love,” he said in an interview.
And so in a concert before 10,000 people Brian Welch told the Korn audience that he had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
Now Brian Welch doesn’t look like your typical church member. His hair is still long, his beard is still scraggly, and his arms and neck are covered with tattoos. On the fingers of his right hand are tattooed the letter J-E-S-U-S, and on the fingers of his left, L-O-V-E.
Brian would have fit neatly into the company of the prostitutes and tax collectors Jesus referred to. Today Brian still makes music, which is still loud. But this time it’s music about that talks about God, about Jesus, about his new faith, and about how Jesus is the answer for life’s deepest pain.
Brian was like the first son who refused to obey his heavenly Father, until later he changed his mind about the Kingdom of God.
God still changes lives. God still calls people to obedience. The question you have to answer for yourself is, “Which son am I?”