Last week we said that God’s grace is his defining characteristic. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is his very essence. And this love, we said, is an undeserved love. That means that God does not love the world because of the world. There was no world to begin with. There was just God. But the nature of God is to love. It is to love another.
Now, that kind of love already existed before the creation of the world. There was the Holy Trinity. The Father loved the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son loved the Father and the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit loved the Father and the Son. And so, God was completely fulfilled even before the creation of the world. He did not create the world because he was lonely.
But here is the thing about God (and this is going to lead us into our sermon today). The nature of love is to show itself. And the nature of pure love is to show itself to that which is undeserving. So, it is not that God is just love in a philosophical sense. No, he is love in a tangible sense. He actually shows his love to other. He loves others. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the sending of Jesus Christ to the world.
You see, many people are good at talking the talk, but they lack when it comes to walking the walk. The Pharisees, for example—they were good at talk. But when it came to loving God and their neighbor—when it came to obeying God as he wanted them to obey him—the Pharisees were disobedient children. They said one thing, but they went ahead and did another.
That is not the way God is. When God says he loves us, he actually loves us. He shows it. Let me just read three short verses and then we will move on.
First the well-known John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
1 John 4:9: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
And finally, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
So, unlike many failed relationships where the person says they love the other, and then by their actions they prove that is not the case—God is not that way. He is the quintessential gentleman. His word is forever good.
Now, everything that God is, he desires his children to be. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. That is, God created them to be like him. And God’s desire that we be like him has never changed. Due to sin we aren’t like him. But after a person is saved, the Holy Spirit begins his creative work of shaping the believer’s heart to be more and more like God’s heart. It not only talks the talk (any hypocrite can do that), but it also beings to walk the walk.
That is what Jesus is getting at in this parable for today. There are two sons. On the face of things, one of them looks like an obedient son; the other doesn’t. But looks can be deceiving. That was especially the case with the Jewish, religious leadership. They looked the part. They played the part. But when it came to being the part, Jesus tells them they were only fooling themselves. They were not God’s children.
On the other hand, the tax collectors and prostitutes did not resemble their Heavenly Father at all. They were rightly called “sinners” because the way they pursued their means of income was sinful. But what happened with so many of them is what was lacking with most of the Pharisees. The former group had a change of mind which led to a change of living. The latter group did not.
Let me just read the parable (it is brief), and then I will move on to some application.
“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.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “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. 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.”
John the Baptist’s ministry was to prepare the people for the coming Messiah. The way to prepare to meet Jesus is via repentance. Repentance is a change of mind. It is realizing that my current way of thinking and living is not congruent with the way God created me to think and to live—that my life doesn’t resemble my Heavenly Father’s life. And so, if I want to consider myself his child, I ought to live like his child.
When many of the prostitutes and tax collectors heard John’s, and later Jesus’ preaching, their entire way of thinking changed from “what I want for myself,” to “what God wants for me”. Although at first, they said, “I will not” to God, they later had a change of mind and responded, “Yes, I will.”
The Pharisees, chief priests, and teachers of the law, however, were quite different. At first glance, they appeared to be the model son in that they were religious. But when it came to doing what God said, they didn’t do it! With their words they said, “I will.” “I will, sir,” the second son says to his father. But when it came to his actions it was clear to the father that he would not.
So also, the Pharisees. They would not repent and believe. Jesus says, “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…” In other words, it was undeniable that they had a change of heart and mind. You could see it in the way they stopped doing what they were doing. So, obviously there was something to John’s preaching. “And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (v. 32).
Hence the question, “What about me? Which one of the two sons am I?” That is the unstated question of this text. Jesus speaks this parable to the smug and hypocritical. He says, “You may think you are God’s obedient child, but when God speaks, you do not do as he says.” And so, Jesus asks the Jews point blank, “What do you think?”
Notice how Jesus goes on the offensive here. This parable is spoken on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus had already entered Jerusalem triumphantly, and the Jewish leadership had already decided to do away with him. But it is Holy Week. Jesus is done defending himself. He is ready to die. So, he goes on the offensive against his attackers by asking, “What do you think?” In other words, “I’m done explaining myself. You don’t believe me anyways. So, come to the conclusion yourselves.”
And so, Jesus presents to them a scenario in which the answer is so obvious, that by answering it, the Jews condemn themselves. They say, “Obviously, the son who ended up doing what his Father asked him was the obedient son.” And Jesus, replies. “Precisely. And that is not you guys. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand who was a prostitute…Matthew, who was a tax collector… they said no to me at first, but now have repented and say “yes” to me. You, however, have not repented. You say, “yes”, but your actions prove that the answer is “no”.
Now, the obvious application is that we also must examine ourselves to see whether we are obedient children. For like the Pharisees, we can fool ourselves into thinking that our own preferred way of serving God is the same as his way, when it is clearly not. Christians are very good at making up religious rules that God never commanded, so that when it comes to the things that God has commanded, their response is “Well, I don’t do that. My way of serving God is this way.”
God says, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Modern-day Christians answer, “I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to prioritize around God’s Word. I can be a Christian and not hear God’s word.” Can you? Can you really?
God says, “Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure” (Hebrews 13:4). I don’t know how many couples have told me their relationship with God is great, and yet they are living in sin! Then they say, “But Jesus died for our sins!” And yes, he did. All the more reason to turn from your sinful ways and live!
You see even Christians do bad things. We are all sinners. Mary Magdalene had done many bad things in her life. Zacchaeus had done many bad things in his life. But the difference between those who are God’s children and those who only think they are God’s children is that, at some point, the sinner repents. They may say, “I will not,” (we all say that), but then they change their mind, and they do. The preaching of God’s Word changes their mind. John the Baptist’s preaching changed the people’s minds. Jesus’ preaching changed people’s minds. And the preaching of God’s Word still does it today.
To fear, love, and trust in God above all things is to repent and then believe that God freely and fully forgives. In the same way that God didn’t just say he loved you, he showed it! He died for you! How do you and I show it? We review the 10 commandments (commands that God has actually given us, not our made-up way of godly living). And then we get on our knees and with renewed hearts, overjoyed at the forgiveness of sins, we say, “What matters to me is no longer my will. It is your will, Heavenly Father. May your will be done through me.”
That is how we show our love to God. We don’t just say we love him. We love him. And when we don’t, we acknowledge it, and then marvel at the love he maintains for us. He always does what he says. He loves us, even when we sin against him. And Jesus the Son died for us, providing the payment for all our sins. God’s love, you see, is love in action. That is genuine love. May our love for Him be genuine as well. Amen.