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!

The Debt You Cannot Pay

It’s hard to love people who feel entitled to your love. I guess you’re just supposed to be grateful to bask in the presence of one so loveable. When a person feels that he is God’s gift to the world, that person has very little to give the world. But when a person who is needy and desperate finds genuine love, that person will truly reciprocate with undying gratitude and affection.

The Lord Jesus had relationships with a self-righteous religious Pharisee named Simon and a notoriously sinful woman (see Luke 7.36-50). The Pharisee watched the woman bring a heavy heart and an alabaster flask to Jesus and express love and gratitude. He thought to himself, “This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7.39). You can almost imagine him spitting those last five words out in his thoughts.

Instead of calling fire down upon the self-righteous man’s head, Jesus confronted him with a parable:

“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”” (Luke 7:41–42)

There is an obvious parallel between this parable and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32). The debtor who owed 50 is like the older son; the debtor who owed 500 like the younger. The creditor could certainly be the father who desires to welcome back both his self-righteous son (Simon the Pharisee) and his wayward prodigal (sinful woman).

Jesus asks Simon, “Which of them will love him more?” The obvious answer to the question will be a self-indictment for Simon. It is similar to what the LORD did to David when he confronted his murder of Uriah to cover up adultery with the man’s wife. God sent a prophet named Nathan to tell a story about a little ewe lamb.

“There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1–7)

Like the debtor who owed 50, those forgiven little love little. Like the debtor who owed 500, those forgiven much love much. But the creditor forgave both. God forgives the vilest of sinners among us only if such a sinner comes by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ. But all of us are sinners. All fall short of the glory of God. Human perspective leads us to falsely conclude that some of us are better than others. Paul wrote, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” (2 Corinthians 10:12)

The fact is that you may be a self-righteous religious person or you may be a licentious, bar-hopping sinner. But all of us are guilty before God. All fall short of the glory of God. If we draw a comparison with someone, let us attempt to compare ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ. You will conclude as I have that none of us have cause to boast. No matter how much or how little we owe, we cannot pay our sin-debt.

But God is willing to forgive. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Jesus “Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) Since this is true, we cannot have anything to do with our salvation. It is all in accordance with God’s mercy and grace. Therefore, no man can claim to be especially loveable to God. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only One worthy of the Father’s words, “This is My beloved Son!”

If you attempt to justify yourself by your supposed goodness or by some law or standard you’ve kept, you have fallen from grace and have become estranged from Christ (see Galatians 5.4). God is willing to forgive, and He invites sinners to come to His Son’s Person and work believing. If you trust in Christ alone for your eternal life, you have much for which you should be grateful.

Your debt is not small. It cost the Father the death of His Son: Jesus’ lifeblood shed for you. Self-righteous people have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof. They are truly hypocritical and pretentious. Formerly self-righteous people experience the grace of God and delight to see Christ high and lifted up!

Your debt is not too great. There is a zeal that Christ will own. Romans 12.11 teaches us that we should not lag behind in our work for the Lord Jesus Christ. We ought to be zealous and fervent in spirit when serving the Lord. When zeal is directed by the Word and motivated by gratitude, then we shall be vindicated even though the world forsake us. Pray and seek power to honor and glorify God. If you live this way, then you shall hear the Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

No sinner will be turned away when he turns to Christ! Jesus forgave the unwelcome woman’s sin. Only God can do that. Her story reminds us that God’s mercy is not only present in our own story, it is dominant. Jesus paid the debt we could not pay. Therefore, we must “owe no one anything except to love one another!” (Romans 13.8a)


A Godly Father’s Relationship with His Sons (Part 2)

It incenses people who play by the rules that someone would receive God’s grace after living such a wasteful life.  It really shouldn’t make moral people angry and bitter when immoral people turn to their only saving hope.  The reason that it does is that we become proud, envious, and discontented like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

“But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.” (Luke 15:28).

The Perspective of the Older Brother

We’ve witnessed similar attitudes in Scripture.  Had Nineveh failed to turn from their evil way, God would not have relented.  He would have judged them (Jonah 3.10).  Of course, they did repent and God did relent.  You’d think a preacher would be happy about that, but not Jonah.  It displeased him a lot.  He became very angry about it (Jonah 4.1).  When Peter fellowshipped with Gentile Christians, it bothered the apostles and brethren from Judea (Acts 11.1-3).  Even the Pharisees themselves were the objects of this particular parable:

Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them…” (Luke 15:1–3)

They just couldn’t stand the fact that Jesus received and ate with tax collectors and sinners.  They had a disposition which was strikingly similar to that of the older brother.  They hated the fact that sinful people were turning from their hopeless lives to Jesus Christ.

The Pharisees complained that tax collectors and sinners were turning to God through the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.  There are Pharisees in every generation.  They hate it when sinful people repent after living sinful lives.  They are unwilling to be happy about it.  There are two important characteristics of the older brother which provide powerful lessons for us:

1.            He was angry about the father’s reception of the younger brother.

2.            He was unwilling to joyfully participate in his younger brother’s return.

Verse 28 makes it plain:  “He was angry.”  His father tenderly pleaded for his oldest son to join the feast celebrating his younger brother’s return.  But all the older son could do was remind his father of how blameless and wonderful he had been in the past.  “Why didn’t his father realize this?”  Of course, the older brother did all this because he was filled with envy.  He couldn’t be grateful for his brother’s return because of his own foolish pride.

But verse 28 goes on to say, “He was angry and would not go in.”  He was unwilling.  Nothing would move him from his hatred and rejection of his brother.  The Pharisees also were unwilling.  They simply viewed themselves as better than everyone else.  There are Pharisees in every generation.  The hardest people to win to Jesus Christ are those who are self-righteous …those who think they are above it all.  Telling someone that their works are filthy rags will not endear them to your heart.  But they need to hear it.

The Perspective of the Father

But notice how the father responds to the older son:  “Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.”

First, the father was forbearing.  He did not utter bitter invectives or become angry with his son.  The son was very disrespectful but the father was very loving.  Fathers should be this way.  Certainly our heavenly Father is.  He is very patient with prodigal and Pharisee alike.

Second, the father condescended to his son.  He went out and pleaded with him.  Lovingly, he reminded him that nothing in all those years had been withheld from him.  Whatever the father had was his.  But both sons were home, and the father implored the older brother to be grateful not bitter.  Fathers must initiate course corrections with their children in the same way.  They shouldn’t expect their immature children to meet them half-way.

Third, the father loved his son.  It is not as hard to love the prodigal son.  He came to the end of himself and humbly returned, willing to take the place of a servant.  It is much harder to love the Pharisee.  He never is tender and responsive to his father.  But the father was tender and caring nonetheless.  Would the son give up his self-righteous disposition and come in and celebrate?  Our heavenly Father’s heart churns within Him; His sympathy is stirred for the self-righteous and the licentious alike (cf. Hosea 11.8).  We should be the same.

Self-righteousness is insidious.  It creeps in with pride, envy, discontentment, and many other evils accompanying it.  It will cause religious men to justify themselves …to pray within themselves words like that of another Pharisee:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke 18.11).  Those who remain self-righteous cannot be saved.

But repentant prodigals are filled with peace and have a desire to sin no more.  They are truly grieved by the direction their lives were going.  They never want to return to the cesspool of their former lives.  Humility is the recognition that you cannot depend upon yourself but must cling to the grace and mercy of God.  All offend the Father every day.  The key is to come before Him in abject poverty, willing to take the place of a servant only to be given the privileges of a son.