Based on Mt. 21:23-32 for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Dear shocked children of God: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well you are shocked, aren’t you? The leaders of the church come to Jesus to ask Him who He gets His authority from, but instead of answering them He gives them a question in return. And when they don’t answer His question, Jesus tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before them. Jesus says that swindlers and hookers are going to heaven before the leaders of the church! Shocking!
Tax collectors were not quite the same as Revenue Canada agents today, as much as you may dislike them. At this time the Romans occupied the Jewish lands with their armies and exacted taxes from the Jews. But instead of using Roman tax collectors, the Romans got Jews to collect the taxes from their fellow countrymen. Thus, the tax collectors were seen as being collaborators with their oppressors and traitors to their own people. Further, they made most of their money by abusing their position and overcharging their fellow Jews, even resorting to violence to collect money and extort their brothers.
Prostitutes were also in this same class of immorality. Despising God’s gift of marriage, they sold their bodies for fornication, as prostitutes do today. Like the tax collectors, they were openly immoral and lived a life contrary to the Law of God. Prostitution was also an important part of the worship of idols in various temples so prostitutes also led people away from God to idolatry.
Yet Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before these leaders of the church. Those who extort money are going to heaven before those who generously support the church with their offerings. Those who spend the night walking the streets are going to heaven before those who spend their Sunday mornings in church. Shocking, isn’t it?
This all takes place during Holy Week, days before Jesus was to be crucified. Three years earlier, these church leaders had already questioned Jesus’ authority (Jn. 2:18), and despite three years of teaching, these chief priests and elders refused to believe what Jesus told them. Even though they saw the miracles, heard the teaching, and witnessed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they did not believe. They still questioned Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” At this point, Jesus only had a few days left until His crucifixion. He shocks His hearers in this eleventh-hour call to repentance in order to bring them into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus responds to them with a question. He asks them concerning the baptism of John, “From where did it come? From heaven or from man?” In other words, who gave John the Baptist the authority to do what he did? By whose authority did he call people to a baptism of repentance? There are only two possible answers. Either his authority is from heaven or from man; either it is from God, or it is not from God and is only made up by man. These are the exact same two possible answers for the source of Jesus’ authority. If the chief priests and elders answer Jesus’ question correctly, they will also answer their own question correctly. But they refuse to answer.
Jesus then gives them the answer in the form of his parable of the two sons who were asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. The first responds rudely and disrespectfully, “I will not”, but later he repents and goes. The second responds politely and respectfully, “I go, sir”, and did not go. Jesus asks them, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” It’s a little easier to answer when you don’t know that He’s talking about you. They correctly answer, “The first.”
Neither son had any intention of going. But the first repented of his disobedience and hard-heartedness and did the will of his father. The second pretended that he would do the will of his father, but did not. He puts on airs and acts obedient and faithful, but has no intention of following his father’s will. Here then Jesus explains why tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven before the chief priests and elders.
When John came preaching a baptism of repentance, the tax collectors and the prostitutes received the forgiveness of sins and repented. As a result of their forgiveness, they stopped living in their sin. They turned from sin and produced the fruit of repentance (Mt. 3:1-6). The chief priests and elders, on the other hand, did not repent of their sin. They presumed to say that Abraham is their father as if that is a substitute for repentance. They were saying, “We are God’s children, so we don’t need to repent. We don’t need to do the will of the Father.”
That is why the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God before these leaders of the church. Further, even when these leaders saw the change in the tax collectors and prostitutes, they did not believe. Even though they saw the change in the lives of these sinners who turned from their ways because their sins were forgiven, they still did not believe. They still rejected John and thus they still rejected God who gave John the authority to do what he did. They rejected the forerunner, thus they rejected also the Messiah Himself.
See, these church leaders and regular church attenders saw no need to repent. Sure the tax collectors and the prostitutes need to repent, but not us. We’re good. We don’t steal from others. We are faithful to our spouses. We’re in church on Sundays. But Jesus tells them the extortioners and whores are going to heaven before them.
The chief priests and elders were so caught up in what man does and does not do, that they were missing the way to heaven. They thought the way to righteousness was in what they did to please God. They thought avoiding what is bad and doing what is good would bring them into the kingdom of heaven. But that’s not the way to heaven; that’s the way to hell. Nothing you do can save you. God sent John to preach this but they rejected him and the word of forgiveness he preached. Thus they also rejected Jesus and the word of forgiveness He brought. They thought they had no need of forgiveness, so they rejected the forgiveness offered, and thus rejected the kingdom of God.
Meanwhile, the tax collectors and prostitutes saw that they were not pleasing to God and they believed John’s preaching of the forgiveness of their sins. They believed that there was nothing they could do to save themselves and they rejoiced in the forgiveness freely given them. Through the forgiveness of their sins, they were brought into the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ shocking message is also directed at you. Do not think that avoiding what is bad and doing what is good will bring you into the kingdom of heaven. That would be a rejection of Christ and His authority; it is a rejection of the forgiveness of sins. Instead, believe that there is nothing you can do to save yourself and rejoice in the forgiveness freely given to you. Know that through the forgiveness of your sins, you have been brought into the kingdom of God.
This is even more shocking. Free forgiveness. The vilest of sins washed away. Open sinners brought to repentance by the powerful word of forgiveness. And it’s not based on what you’ve done. Jesus did it all for you. His blood shed on the cross forgives you all your sins. His blood can wash the sins of those who have walked in open shame and vice, even extortion and prostitution. It can wash away the sins of those who have walked in conceit and pride, thinking they are better than others and have no need of forgiveness. Jesus’ blood washes away your sins. So be shocked, and believe the word of promise: your sins are forgiven you. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.