On the first day of the week before the Passover, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in what has come to be known as the Triumphal Entry. He was greeted by crowds of people shouting Hosanna to the son of David – essentially, “God save the King” – and waving palm branches (Matt 21:8-9). In other words, he was greeted as a ruler. That did not sit well with the Jewish elites.
The situation intensified when Jesus entered the Temple and drove out the merchants, rebuking them for turning a house of prayer into a den of robbers. So the leaders challenged him, By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? (Matt 21:23). Jesus responded by asking a question about John the Baptist: was his baptism from God or from men? That caught the rulers on the horns of a dilemma: they could not deny John was a prophet without losing favor with the people, but they could not admit he was God’s man without being faulted for not following him. All they could muster was a copout. We do not know (v. 27). Jesus responded that he wouldn’t answer them either.
And then he told them a story. A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” And he answered, “I will not” but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, “I go sir,” but did not go.”(v. 28-30) He applied that to his audience, without mincing words: the respectable religious leaders were the disobedient sons; the tax collectors and prostitutes were the obedient ones, and even those despised outcasts would enter the kingdom of God before them!
There is a lesson here for us. Consider the question Jesus asks to drive his point home: Which of the two did the will of his Father? (v. 31) This is the only question that really matters; all Scripture is saturated with that conviction. But it is best exemplified in the life of Jesus. As he put it, I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (Jn 6:38). So what is at stake here is doing or failing to do the will of God – and, when we consider the perfectly obedient example of Jesus, it is following or failing to follow him. The Father is God, and the vineyard is his Kingdom. The two sons are classes of people commanded to labor in it: those open sinners who refuse but then repent and earnestly labor, and those hypocrites who make promises they don’t keep.
That’s the gist of the parable. But what does it mean for us? Think particularly about the command, go and work in the vineyard today. Let’s note 3 things about that command:
- There is work to be done. That should be obvious, and yet sometimes we seem blind to it. There is work to be done in meeting the physical needs of others, as we detailed in our sermon last week. But as great as that need is, there is a greater need in spiritual matters. There are areas of the world with a famine of the Word as great as any dearth of food we might imagine. And we are not just talking about far-flung parts of the globe. Did you know that the average attendance at churches of Christ across the country on Sunday morning is only 94? That’s alarming when you consider that there are numerous 1,000+ member congregations that bolster that number. 54% of congregations average just 34 people on Sunday. That means we are above average here – that’s good! – but there is still so much to do. And we should note for those who fail to do, 58 churches a year closed their doors forever in the last decade.
- Go work in the vineyard. There is not merely work to be done, but it’s God’s work. Many people are eager to work, but not in the Father’s vineyard. We are pretty good about working in our own vineyard for our own benefit. But how many of us work consistently for God? How many of us are willing to teach Bible classes? How many of us bring friends or neighbors to church? How many of us even pray or read our Bibles much? Sometimes we think about work in the church and imagine we aren’t capable of much – but many of these are simple things. Jesus seemed to think he was working in the vineyard even on his knees; after only, the only work we know of that made him sweat was prayer! We are not all skilled to do the same kind of work. But God does call us to work.
- Go work today. The need is now. We aren’t needed in some indefinite future. God calls us to work today. Like the case of the two sons, this is the only day that exists. All that is necessary to waste our lives is to waste today.
God will not force us to obey him. He entreats us as a Father. We are his children. Will we do his will? Or will we profess to and then fail to act?