Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
This morning as we continue our journey through the life of Christ, we find the chief priests and elders confronting him. Their question appearing innocent enough, the fathers tell us actually reveals something about their character. The fathers tell us that it reveals the elders infidelity or unfaithfulness. The chief priests and elders were attempting to show to the crowds their humility in not knowing. However, since Jesus and John the Baptist had both received their authority from heaven, if the chief priests and elders had been faithful to God they would have known.
What of ourselves, do we fain ignorance at times so that we may appear humbler, rather than examining our lives to see if things would be revealed if we sought wisdom from our heavenly Father?
We notice that he doesn’t answer them directly but gives them a rhetorical question as a response. This is to show first that if they had been willing to see his authority, they could. Second, so that they would be hindered from questioning him further. Earlier in St. Matthew 7, Christ admonishes us not to cast our pearls before swine or to give what is holy to dogs. It is not fitting that the Lord should violate his own command.
Furthermore, if we take the hypothetical approach and look at what could have been if Jesus had answered directly, the Fathers tell us it would have accomplished nothing further to their understanding. For,
“a darkened will cannot discern what is of light. What good is it to show something beautiful to a blind man?1
Summing up this conversation one, of the fathers, says,
It was proper that the Lord teach his interrogator and weaken his tempter in whatever way he could and confound the cleverness of his reproach with rational arguments, while not making known the truth of his own mystery.2
In this exchange, we see that both Christ and the religious leaders knew the answer to both of these questions – John and Christ’s authority.
“It was if he had said, ‘You know the truth because you are men, but you deny it because you are evil; I know it because I am God, but I will not tell you because you are unworthy.’ Liars will lie to themselves if they have no one to deceive. Similarly, truth will keep itself pure, if it finds no one to save.3
You may have had the experience, when you had a secular job of people asking questions about your faith or lifestyle with malicious intent. I had a co-worker who would ask me these kinds of questions frequently. One time he asked a question that had double meaning, and I asked him to refine it a little bit so that I knew what I’d be answering, and he quit his line of questioning. Most of the time the questions were merely meant to shock, and I really didn’t know what to do with them and replied nothing.
However, because some ask malicious questions, we must not allow that to deprive us of our willingness to answer questions about our faith and life. Br. Harv and I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to answer such questions. In leading up to that my mind was rolling with the questions, “Is he genuine or is he spoiling for a fight?”. We must be aware of the dangers, but we must never lose our compassion for those who are seeking God.
Coming now to the parable of the two sons, we see first of all a Father. One of the fathers describes him this way,
“Who is this if not the God who created all people and loves them with a fatherly affection, the God who preferred to be loved as a father rather than to be feared as a lord, even though He was Lord by nature? On this account, at the beginning of the commandments of the law, he did not say, ‘You shall fear the Lord with all your heart’ but ‘You shall love the Lord with all your heart’. To elicit love is not a characteristic of a Lord but of a father.4
This is the God and Father who comes to the two sons who are representative of the whole world. He asks the first son to work in His vineyard. The fathers tell us that to work in the vineyard is to do justice. Therefore, he asks the first son who is representative of the Gentiles to do justice and he would not. He is the older son because the Gentiles existed before the nation of Israel. Later, however, after the apostles were sent out, he began to do justice.
The second son, which is Israel, heard the command of His Father, Moses and all the prophets promised to do the will of the Father but ultimately failed to do so. These are they who in Exodus said, “All that the Lord shall speak, we will do and hearken,” but ultimately in their works they were disobedient.
He shows that this self-same thing condemns them, like as Paul also says, Not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For this intent, that He might make them even self-condemned, He causes the judgment to be delivered by themselves, like as He does also in the [following] parable of the vineyard.5
Israel had the law; they knew that they were to do justice and to love mercy and from the responses to Christ’s questions in these parables they knew what they were to do. They were judged by their own mouth. The Fathers tell us that it is better to do righteousness without promising than to promise and not to follow through. I think Solomon also warns us that it is better to not vow than to vow and not pay. We must be careful that we do what we promise.
What of us, many of us here have been raised in the Church. We can probably get around the Bible backwards and forwards through what we have learned from our Sunday School classes, kids’ clubs and teaching from our parents. Are we being obedient to what we have been taught? I think all of us have a greater knowledge of God and the Christian life than many professing Christians. However, the question is are we living it or are we revelling in the fact that we know such things.
We have been studying church history this year and we have seen that the Western Church was spared from much of the heresies of the first 1000 years because they had to live their faith and pay for it dearly. The Eastern Church facing much less upheaval had the time to acquire knowledge and argue out some of the early heresies. Safety is not necessarily a good thing for the Church.
We can look at North American Christianity as well. We have a life of ease but ancient heresies have begun cropping up among us. Since I started Bible School in 2006 and started paying attention to these things a bit more, I have seen different Christians reject the Trinity or have some weird ideas about it, embrace Marcionism, accept universalism, have parts of Gnosticism creep into their faith and more. We have been taught the Christian faith are we living it? Or are we trying to acquire more knowledge so that we can cast judgement on God and the faith?
Just to be clear the point is not to stop learning but as we learn, to remember to put it into practise. We have the Scriptures and the Fathers not so that we can pass tests about our knowledge but so that we can live in a way that is more holy and righteous.
The fathers also see in this parable the process that leads to sin. It first begins by saying in our hearts, “I will not”. It is to first say I will not do justice and then to proceed towards wickedness.
As the Fathers pointed out the Father is loving and compassionate and here in verse 31, we see the same characteristics in the Son as he asks a question and pronounces judgement.
If he had said simply, harlots go before you, the word would have seemed to them offensive. But now uttered after their own judgement [on the two sons], it appears to be less harsh.6
We see a similar thing when the Prophet Nathan confronts King David. God convicts us from the judgements from our own mouths. In St. Matthew 7 we are warned that we will be judged in the same measure as we judge others. God condemns us by our own standards, so that we are without excuse. However, he has compassion and mercy on us beyond what we mete out. Origen tells us that the Jews are not shut out forever, but only until the fullness of the Gentiles is completed after that they may enter in.
Jesus says to them that John came to them. He did not come to the harlots and tax-collectors but to them first of all. His care was for the religious leaders and the Jews, however when they did not pay attention to him, the door was opened to others those who were considered greater sinners.
We see this pattern of ministry in the life of St. Paul as well. He would go first of all to the synagogues and only after they rejected him would he go to the Gentiles.
The phrase, that they are going into the kingdom of heaven before you, is not to say that the religious leaders were also currently going but that there was a hope for them to enter as well. He mentioned these who were considered to be involved in great sin to provoke them to jealousy so that they might after repentance enter the Kingdom of heaven as well.
The Fathers raise the question, “Are we to believe that the religious believers did not believe because they were less sinful than the tax-collectors and prostitutes?” They answer emphatically to the contrary that they did not believe even when they were reproved by the repentance of these who seemed to have more sin demonstrates that they were full of sin. They state that were more contemptuous of God, more arrogant, lovers of vainglory, hard-hearted, wanting neither to lead these greater sinners in faith nor to follow them.
This morning then, let us look to ourselves and not walk in the example of these religious leaders. Do we fain ignorance because we do not want to confront ourselves with the truth that we have been unfaithful to God? Are we jealous of the ministry or the role others have in the Church? We must repent lest they go into the Kingdom of heaven and we are left outside.
When we are confronted by those asking malicious questions about our faith and lifestyle, we must seek to answer wisely so that we do not give holy things to dogs. Perhaps this means answering with a question or in another instance remaining silent. Seek the Lord continually that you will have wisdom in how to respond. Always seek to be compassionate and not cynical so that you can receive with love those who have earnest questions.
Let us praise God that He is a compassionate father and desires the best for us. We must walk in what we have been taught through our years in the Christian community. Let us not seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake but in order that we may live in more godliness and holiness.
Finally, let us never pass judgement on those who seem to be greater sinners than us since in the compassion of God they may go into the Kingdom of Heaven before us. We can become proud that our standing before God is secure and look down on others not realising that pride and arrogance are destroying our faith from the inside. If we begin to cast judgements on those that we don’t believe can be saved, we must run to our loving and compassionate Father in repentance and ask for His mercy which He will give.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
1 Thomas C. Oden and Manlio Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ib (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 134
2 Ibid, 134
3 Ibid, 134
4 Ibid, 135