“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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 after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The ironic thing about “telling the truth” is that we are often never more certain of the truth than when we are lying. To tell a lie requires that we know what really happened, because it’s our knowledge of what really happened that enables us to concoct a false story that’s convincing enough to fly. Meanwhile, when we’re just going about our business with nothing to hide, have you ever noticed how our memories of what took place can be a little foggy? Honesty is what allows us to live freely, without the burden of having to trace our every step. We don’t have to keep an inventory of everything we do when we’re living honestly. Lying, on the other hand, forces us into morbid introspection; the truth allows us to forget ourselves and focus our attention to where it’s supposed to be: on God and neighbor.
But honesty also comes before repentance and conversion, which is why honesty is a precondition for our fellowship with God in Christ. And so our Gospel today includes two different examples that show how dishonesty before God gets in the way of one’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Because the Christian life is from start to finish a life of repentance -- a life of turning away from sin and toward the mercy of God -- our Gospel this morning is of constant relevance to us, no matter where we are.
Our Gospel begins with the chief priests and the elders approaching Jesus in the temple in order to interrogate him. They are coming to him from a place of presumed authority -- they think that they have the right to demand that Jesus explain himself, show them his credentials. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask. The chief priests and the elders have already separated themselves from Jesus. They have already defined themselves and their authority apart from Jesus, such that he is now like a subordinate that is accountable to them. They refuse to consider the possibility that they are accountable to him. It’s a reminder that whenever we are confronted by our Lord -- whether it’s for the first time or the thousandth -- we can respond in just about every way imaginable except for indifference. There is no neutrality before the face of Christ. The revelation of who Jesus is in turn reveals who we really are.
So when you consider our Lord, do you accept his authority on its own terms? Do you humbly submit to the entirety of his teaching and example as found in the Gospels simply because of who he is? Or, do you find yourself evaluating his teaching by some other standard -- the standard of practicality, perhaps, or of ease or comfort or security? Whatever this other standard is, it’s a constant temptation for all of us. But all of our attempts at rationalizing Jesus come from an assertion of our own authority against the authority of Christ. And it’s how we end up approaching Jesus just like the chief priests and the elders approach him today.
When asked to explain himself and his authority, Jesus refuses to give a straightforward answer because that would validate their presumption. He doesn’t answer to the chief priests and the elders nor does he owe them an account of his authority. And so he responds with a question of his own: “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” For the chief priests and the elders, either answer is a legitimate one. Only one of them is the correct answer, of course, but both answers express an honest response to who Jesus is. So Christ has given them the opportunity to be honest with themselves and publicly commit to a clear position about him. It’s an opportunity that is presented to each and every one of us. But there’s a catch for the chief priests and the elders. By asking them about the origin of the baptism of John the Baptist -- whether from God or from himself -- Jesus has forced them to demonstrate their faithfulness to the prophets -- in other words, their faithfulness as Jews. Bound up in Jesus’ question about the baptism of John is a question about their status as devout people of God. Again, as I said earlier, the revelation of who Jesus is in turn reveals who we are. The chief priests and the elders, along with us, have to be honest with themselves.
But they don’t do that, of course, and so they lie:
They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
They’re still trying to protect themselves. Still trying to defend their own pretense of authority. They absolutely know which answer they’d go with if they were being honest. They know the truth of what they believe. But that’s the thing about lying: lies always come from a very clear knowledge of the truth. Instead of having the courage to tell the truth and accept the inevitable consequences that would follow from either answer, the chief priests and the elders retreat into cowardice. Their dishonesty has shut them out from the possibility of repentance and conversion. They refuse to change and be changed.
The chief priests and the elders are like the second son in Jesus’ parable who tells his father that he’ll go out and work in the vineyard as he’s been told but then doesn’t. This son gives lip-service to obedience while intending all along to ignore the instruction. The first son, however, though initially disobedient, is at least honest about it -- he’s not going to go work in the vineyard and says so. But then, crucially, he later changes his mind. This is the fundamental difference between the two sons, and by extension, between the chief priests and the elders and the tax collectors and prostitutes. The second son never changes; he dishonestly puts on a performance of obedience while maintaining his own authority for himself. The first son, by contrast, is honest both in his initial disobedience and in his change of mind which leads him to obey his father. The first son never lies; his change of mind is his repentance which is expressed by going to work in the vineyard as instructed.
Jesus makes one more comparison in his discussion with the chief priests and the elders. He has implied that they are the like the second son in his parable, performing the outward appearances of obedience and fidelity while maintaining a secret duplicity; their rival authority. Our Lord then concludes by telling them that:
...the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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 after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The tax collectors and the prostitutes are honest with themselves before the preaching of John the Baptist. Like the second son of the parable, their manner of life begins in an explicit departure from God’s standard for human beings -- their lives are the “I will not” that the first son tells the father. But they accept who they really are and don’t have any delusions otherwise. This honesty is what allows them to proceed into the humility of repentance: “the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” And thus they will go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of those who, like the chief priests and the elders, are still invested in negotiating their own perceived authority with the divine authority of Christ. But repentance begins with renouncing all our claims to our own authority in order that we may submit to Christ our Lord.
When we think about ourselves, honesty would recognize that there is at least some place in our lives where we’ve either knowingly defied what God has demanded of us or gone along with the outward appearance of obedience while disobeying him in our inward thoughts, words, and deeds. Either way, we stand convicted by the revelation of Christ before us. The question is whether we will allow that conviction to reveal who we really are when compared to Jesus and accept it with honesty and humility or instead persist in our illusions. The kingdom of heaven awaits those who change their minds and go into the vineyard to do the work God has prepared for them. See it and believe. Amen.