I love the way Jesus engages his audience. He doesn’t just tell a story and have done with it. He begins by asking a question. This is very Socratic. As they say, you cannot own the answer until you’ve owned the question. In this case, the question was already asked “off camera.”
So let me ask you… what is the question?
Matthew 21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”
Have you got it?
The focal point of the passage is the action of the first son. It says, “afterward he changed his mind.” The word being used here is the greek word we most often translate as “repent.” The actual translation makes for kind of awkward English, “afterward he repented himself and went.” A more colloquial, and substantially correct translation would be “afterward it was a care to him and he went.” We would say, “but later on it bothered him that he had refused is father. So he went.”
Repentance is not just a simple change of mind. This isn’t you planning on going to one store and then changing your mind and walking into another, because it doesn’t trouble you in your heart that you didn’t go to the first store. James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The very nature of sin is that we knew what was right and willfully chose not to do it. Whether our conscience was activated against us in the internal argument is what will ultimately make it possible for us to repent of the sin. Oh, we may have had no conscience about it at all in the moment. But later on, like the son in the story, something about our decision bothers us.
Some sins you can go back and fix. Others you can’t. The glory of real repentance is that there is a real and heartfelt determination that you’re not going to do that again. And when repentance is fully at work in you, you don’t. The son in the story was able to fix the wrong he had determined to do. All he had to do was show up in the field, albeit late for work. I won’t moralize any further. I’m sure you get the idea.
But there’s more to the story. “Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.
Ouch. Here is Jesus telling a group of Pharisees – those who boasted of having achieved ceremonial righteousness – that some of the greatest sinners in their society understood this concept and they didn’t. You would think that the Pharisees would be among the first to really grasp what repentance toward God means. It means that by my actions and thoughts and desires I have violated what I’ve always said is the number one relationship in my life. And it bothers me. And now I’m going to do something about it. That’s repentance. But the Pharisees thought that because they had done all the right things, that meant that God owed them something, and their position with God was assured. Because they had no conscience about their sin toward God, there was no repentance in their heart.
Jesus goes on to says, “And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” There was no way in which it bothered them that they had rejected the message of John. They really, honestly thought they had nothing to repent of.
What do you think? We live in a culture that has said to us there is no such thing as sin. Look around you. You’ll see that the prevailing thought is that God is irrelevant, all ways a person can choose to live lead to the same end; either universal salvation, because God wouldn’t send anyone to hell even if there is one, or universal obliteration (the end is the end). This culture says that it doesn’t matter how you live, as long as you please yourself.
There. There’s your ceremonial righteousness. It doesn’t matter how you live, as long as you please yourself. That means that you are God, and the only standard that applies is that you are happy.
But dear reader: does this definition of righteousness bother you? Does it seem to you that there is something wrong with the way this works itself out in your life? Are you really as happy as all that running the whole universe yourself (the moral, by the way, of Bruce Almighty… good movie)? If, having gone down the road you are on, you are now bothered by the meaning of it, can I invite you to consider that you may be ready to “repent yourself” of that life and go out to the field to meet your father and work with him?
What do you think?