How often have you said you will do something, but then not done it ? All of us can probably say that we have failed to keep our word. I know that I have, and that I am not proud of it at all. It is a human condition to say one thing but do another. Which is why we need a moral, ethical structure to our thinking. Christianity provides such a vital moral framework.
We have reached verses 28 to 32 of chapter 21 of Matthew’s Gospel in the Bible. There we find the parable of a man with two sons. He asked both to go and work in the family vineyard that day. The first refused, but then later went and did as he was bidden. The second readily agreed, but then failed to keep his word. He did not actually go.
Jesus therefore commends the first, and makes the point he wants to make to the chief priests and elders of the people who had questioned his right to teach in the temple back in verse 23. Jesus says that the hated tax collectors and despised prostitutes will get into heaven ahead of the religious leaders. Why ? Because they believed John the Baptist’s message of repentance.
Society’s losers were prepared to turn their lives around when God’s minister told them to, but the religious leaders saw no reason to – after all, they were God’s ministers; what did they have to repent of ?
Precisely that. Their attitude that they were a caste apart who could do as they please, regardless of God’s requirements. They had position and power, but they had completely lost sight of the obligation to live as their position required them to live – as examples to the people.
Instead of examining themselves, they had decided to examine Jesus. Not what Jesus was saying so much as the fact that he was in ‘their’ temple doing ‘their’ job. The fact that they were failing to do the job required of them, passed them by. They were doing what we all do when engrossed in sin – deceiving themselves [see Hebrews chapter 3, verse 13].
That is a permanent reminder to every minister of Christ’s Gospel that they are under an obligation to practise what they preach. That they must live first and foremost preaching to themselves…
It is not then a question of who we are and whether we are respectable people. It is a question of whether we realise what we are [sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing], and what we need to do [repent of what we are and have done, and live life from now on as God says we should].
Coming back to the story of the two sons, it is interesting to note the psychology involved here because the psychology displayed by the two brothers is at work in us all.
The first did not want to go and work in the family vineyard. [How often do we all refuse to acknowledge our duty to our family, or to our job of work ?] He was up front and honest about his rebellion against his father’s instruction. He did not hide his reaction. But when he reflected, he realised that he was being selfish and foolish. He realised that he was failing to do his duty and to pull his weight in helping his family and contributing to the family’s income. In reflecting, he realised that his attitude was wrong and that his position as a son demanded certain responsible behaviour from him. He therefore behaved differently and went and did what was required. He acted on his change of mind.
In short, he repented in the Biblical sense of that term.
The second son was of a different character. He evidently wanted to appear to be good, but lacked the underlying mindset to be good. So he told his father what his father wanted to hear, but then went and did as he wanted to do – refuse to obey and refuse to do what his position as a son required of him.
He was all front, but lacked substance. He was superficial and dishonest; but like all superficial and dishonest people he did not want to be seen for what he was – an irresponsible and selfish sinner.
But before we condemn this second son, let us just remind ourselves that we all have this same mindset in us. We all want to look good in the eyes of others, yet we all want to avoid at times what being good actually requires of us: it requires us to do as the first son did. Face up to what we are, and face it down. And facing it down requires more than just an admission to ourselves [or even to others] that we are wrong, that we are irresponsible, that we are selfish. It requires actions in keeping with our realisation about ourselves.
James teaches us in his short but extremely pertinent epistle that actions are essential. In chapter 2 James says this:
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.
It is all very well to acknowledge the truth – but the devil and his demons also know full well what the truth is – the point is that they don’t act accordingly – they don’t change their nature and behaviour to become godly.
James continues in verse 20
But wilt thou know, o vain man, that faith without works is dead ?
and concludes in verse 26
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.
Which is why I teach that when you come to Christ having accepted the message about his atoning death and forgiveness and new life in him, you must obey his command to be baptised by full immersion in water.
No ifs or buts; no excuses; but plain obedience.
You see you will soon find out whether you have true, God given-faith or whether your faith is just from your self.
Obedience is required.