There is a wonderful story about a group of military leaders who succeeded
in building a super computer that was able to solve any problem--large or
small, strategic or tactical. These military leaders assembled in front of
the new machine for a demonstration. The engineer conducting the
demonstration instructed these officers to feed a difficult tactical problem
into it. The military leaders proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation
to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat? This
enormous super computer hummed away for an hour and then printed out its
one-word answer . . . YES.
The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT? Instantly the computer responded: YES, SIR.
The Pharisees, like these generals, were accustomed to people saying "Yes, sir" to them. They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated as such. But there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority. The Pharisees were alarmed. They feared Jesus' popularity, his ability to heal and to perform miracles. In their eyes, Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined the Jews. The Pharisees wanted to expose him as a fraud.
It was in this context that Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."
The boy immediately said, "No." Later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, "O.K." but he never got out to the vineyard. Then Jesus asked a simple question: "Which of the two did what his father wanted?"
"The first," they answered.
Then Jesus delivered the punch line, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." (NIV)
That really was a punch line, and the Pharisees were the ones who were punched. I imagine Jesus heard some gasps and "How dare he!" from the crowd that day. It was unthinkable to compare the righteous Pharisees to blatant sinners like the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Didn't he know that the Pharisees were too good to be lumped together with the likes of them? Didn't he know that only those people with the right "credentials," so to speak, would make it into the Kingdom of God? What was Jesus talking about and why was he excoriating the best people in town?
There is an old Japanese legend that tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful--full of lush gardens and glittering mansions. But then the man came to a room lined with shelves. On the shelves were stacked piles of human ears! A heavenly guide explained that these ears belonged to all the people on earth who listened each week to the word of God, but never acted on God's teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. When these people died, therefore, only their ears ended up in heaven.
Jesus is dealing with a bunch of "earless" religious folk in this passage, and it would be to our benefit to listen in on the conversation. It's so easy to mistake self-righteous attitudes for true belief in Jesus as Savior. Any one of us can be guilty of it. This passage packs a powerful message, telling us...
1. How God's grace is shocking.
2. How we are to live our lives.
3. And, how no one is excluded from the Kingdom of God, not even a Pharisee.
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