Pharisee or Publican: Which One Are You?

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28–32)

This parable parallels The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father has two sons. Just as one son repented of his wasteful life, the son in this parable will repent of his disobedience. The son that said he would obey and did not reminds us of the self-righteousness we see in the older brother of the Prodigal story. Here, one son says he will go and work in father’s vineyard but doesn’t. The other son says he won’t and he does after later changing his mind.

Jesus was aiming this parable at the hearts of the chief priests and the elders along with the tax collectors and harlots (21.23, 32). The tax collectors and harlots will enter the kingdom before the chief priests and elders. Actually, these tax collectors and harlots may enter the kingdom instead of the chief priests and elders. This fact will only change if the chief priests and scribes humble themselves and enter by grace through faith just as the tax collectors and harlots do. One group sees and feels its need while the other does not.

There are three important practical aspects to this parable: 1) God sends mankind forth to carry out His will; 2) Some promise to perform His will, fail to make good, and are rejected; 3) Others rebel against His will, later submit, and are accepted.

The Lord Jesus faced a hardened group of chief priests and elders. A full-on assault against them would simply drive them away. The Lord Jesus chose an indirect method of attack. These men confronted Jesus by asking, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21.23). Jesus answered their questions with questions of His own, “The baptism of John – where was it from? From heaven or from men” (Matthew 21.24-25)? They were in a quandary. John was counted as a prophet. If they answered from men, then they would be at odds with the populace who loved John. If they answered from heaven, it is obvious what Jesus would next ask: “Why then did you not believe him” (Matthew 21.25)?

The chief priests and elders wouldn’t give Jesus a direct answer to His question. So Jesus, knowing the hardness of the men didn’t directly answer them. But He did answer them. That’s what our parable is all about.

The Conduct of the Two Sons

The tax-collectors and harlots are represented by the son who refused to comply with the father’s command to go out and work in the field. Later reflection brought the son to his senses and he went. When John the Baptist preached his message of repentance, many who heard it were obvious sinners. They had no hope. They had shown contempt for the Word of God. When facing the fact that they were lost and undone, John preached a message of hope and mercy. When they submitted to the baptism of John, they did so with grateful, sincere hearts.

The chief priests and the elders had pledged obedience to the Father’s will, but didn’t do the work assigned to them. They fulfilled a religious agenda; just not God’s agenda! These men had their phylacteries and religious robes …they feigned respect for God but only to be seen of men. They thought in their self-righteousness that if anyone was prized by God among men, it was them. They wouldn’t work in the Father’s vineyard because they were too busy with their own vineyard. Are you sure you’re not putting together your own vineyard?

Both sons are surely representative of all mankind. We go out and speak with people and find that at first blush they could care less about God’s sovereignty and authority over their lives. They say with the psalmist, “With our tongue we will prevail; our lips are our own; who is lord over us” (Psalm 12.4)? But then God’s grace convinces them of their sin. They seek for mercy and hope in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, which gives them both. Others are serious-minded about religious things. They are outwardly moral and say that they respect and obey the Word of God. And yet theirs is a form of godliness with no inner power or substance. They turn away from external sinfulness and run toward external self-righteousness. It will be a rude awakening for the self-righteous to learn that in Christ they find all their righteousness. Only sin-sick people need the Great Physician.

The first son who refused to obey his father certainly had terrible character. But repentance transformed his character. Obedience coming from the heart of gratitude pleases the Father. The second son was only a hypocrite …devoid of any kind of character at all. His promise to obey just strengthened his worthless and hypocritical heart. This leads us to three conclusions about this parable:

1.  Many religious people will be confirmed in their self-righteousness and enter Hell.

We must be thankful that the populace around us doesn’t manifest its godless heart to the degree that it did in the days of Noah. It will always be better to live in a moral society rather than an immoral one. However, the big danger for the moral, self-righteous man is that he never comes to the end of himself. I am thankful that I don’t have a brothel down the street from my house. Yet in the final sum of things, there is no difference between the customers inside of a brothel and the self-righteous congregants inside of a Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon Church. Either Christ is sufficient or He is not; there is no in-between. It’s easier to preach the Gospel to people who truly believe they are lost. They do not have to be convinced of their need. What they find incredulous is that they would be able to receive grace. But a self-righteous generation is “pure in its own eyes, yet is not washed from its filthiness” (Proverbs 30.12).

2.  Godliness is determined inside-out.

Godliness is indeterminable by what a person says. Godliness works itself in and through a person. The end result is obedience and fulfilling the Father’s will. Many people have agendas. They say, “I go, sir!” But do they really go? It’s like a boss asking an employee to fulfill certain job requirements, but he has his own agenda for his job. You can say you’re loyal to Christ all you want. You can say that you serve the Lord all you want. The real test is what you do and the spirit in which you do it. Do your works deny Christ when you insist you live for Christ? Those humbled and obedient are right before God. All the rest are hypocrites; they are like the deceitful, self-righteous son. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

3.  Many ungodly people will repent of their sinfulness and enter Heaven.

Those who turn from their sinfulness and self-righteousness find hope at the foot of the cross. God has a vineyard in which you are able to work. Access that vineyard by grace through faith. Do that which God purposed you to do even before time began. You may think that you cannot serve God because of the sin of your past. Let me remind you that that too is self-righteousness. Do you really think that if you lived a certain way in the past that that would qualify you for Heaven or for service to God? None of us are righteous. All of us are insufficient to live godly lives. Our default position is ungodly. God “will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds [He] will remember no more” (Hebrews 8.12). Once we are justified not only do we access Heaven one day, we have access to God today! We are accepted in the Beloved One. The very Pharisees who reject harlots will find their place in the Lake of fire which burns forever. Many long-term church-goers will burn right beside them. Still others will enter the Heaven after being saved upon the 11th hour of their lives.

Let us all go to work in the Father’s vineyard today. Let us glorify God rather than ourselves. Don’t simply say, “Lord, Lord!” but do the will of your Father in Heaven!

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