JESUS RECEIVES SINNERS
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In the Name of the Father, and (+) of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
This is one of those parables that is easily misunderstood. Sometimes people focus on the first few verses and turn this parable to a lesson on obedience. So that they end up saying something like, “It’s better to say you won’t do something and then actually do it, than to say you will do something and then not do it.”
This is a reading of the text I have heard far too many times. But it is not even close to Jesus’ point. The context for these verses is that Jesus’ authority was just challenged by the Pharisees. Jesus flipped their interrogation on its head by asking them some questions about John:
24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
It is right after this that Jesus tells the parable of the two sons. The Pharisees, who are represented by the first son, claim to be the ones who are following God, but then when the Forerunner and the Messiah come, they reject both and wallow in their self-righteousness. They do not see their sin or their need for a Savior and so reject what God sent them for their good.
Hilary of Poitiers saw this long ago: “The first son represents the people who are from the Pharisees. Urgently admonished by God through the prophecy of John to conform themselves to his commandments, they remained insolent, disobedient and contemptuous to God’s warnings. They put their faith in the law and despised repentance from sin, glorying instead in the noble prerogative that they had from Abraham.”
The tax collectors, prostitutes, and other people who saw their sin (who are represented by the second son) are repenting and trusting in Christ alone for their salvation. They are welcomed into the Kingdom and are sure of their salvation, while the self-righteous, hardhearted Pharisees are on the outside looking in. This shocked and horrified and enraged the Pharisees. The looked down on these “sinners” and did not believe they belonged in the Kingdom.
The Good News for us is that Jesus still receives those who see themselves as “poor miserable sinners”, indeed, those who see themselves as “the chief of sinners”. Jesus came to seek and save sinners. He lived, suffered, died, and rose again FOR sinners. The Law shows us who we are as sinners, then the Gospel comes and forgives us those sins and gives us new life. Then like the tax collectors and prostitutes, we enter the Kingdom of God – not because of our own righteousness, but because we are covered in the righteousness of Jesus. And Jesus’ point is that in Him you are truly righteous and pious. This is THE Good News – Jesus Christ rescues and redeems you the sinner. This enrages the self-righteous but brings joy to those who see their sin for what it truly is.
Jesus sinners doth receive;
Oh, may all this saying ponder
Who in sin's delusions live
And from God and heaven wander!
Here is hope for all who grieve--
Jesus sinners doth receive. (LSB 609)
Lord God, heavenly Father: We are poor, miserable sinners; we know Your will, but cannot fulfill it because of the weakness of our flesh and blood, and because our enemy, the devil, will not leave us in peace. Therefore we beseech You, shed Your Holy Spirit in our hearts, that, in steadfast faith, we may cling to Your Son Jesus Christ, find comfort in His passion and death, believe the forgiveness of sin through Him, and in willing obedience to Your will lead holy lives on earth, until by Your grace, through a blessed death, we depart from this world of sorrow, and obtain eternal life, through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, world without end. Amen.
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