Upside Down: Life in the Kingdom Week 6

We are winding down our conversation of what it looks like to live an upside down existence.  To live the Kingdom of God in our lives and in the world, which ends up looking very upside down from how the world acts, believes, lives, and operates.  

We’ve explored such upside down concepts such as humility and the way up is actually down, loving your enemies, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who mistreat you. We’ve also covered the greatest in the Kingdom are actually the children which stand for the marginalized, the needy, and those without power, as well the first being the last and the absolutely radical subversive nature of this amazing upside down thing called grace.  And last week we let God speak through the Scriptures through the Spiritual Discipline of Lectio Divina looking at the fact that to truly live this upside down Kingdom we need to die to ourselves and live for him.  

Next week we’ll wrap up the series by talking about a Free Slave.  But this week our Scripture is Matthew 21:28-32 and we’ll be talking about Inside Outsiders.  

So let’s jump into the text and let’s see what Matthew 21:28-32 has to say to us about the Upside Down Life in the Kingdom of God.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, 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.”

To understand this parable you need to also look at what is happening before this story in Matthew 21.  In Matthew 21 we see the religious leaders and Jesus squaring off.  At the beginning of chapter 21 we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem as King, followed by his clearing of the temple, and then he curses the fig tree.  All of these acts put him in confrontation with the religious leaders and teachers of his day.  In fact the cursing of the fig tree has some direct connection with the parable.  As we mentioned a few months ago when we looked at this text, that the tree itself represents Israel and it’s religious leaders.  The Fig Tree had leaves but no fruit which is symbolic of Israel’s religious activities- all the trappings of spirituality but no substance.  Israel may have had leaves of activity but not fruit of repentance and obedience to God, which is why Jesus tells them in the parable that we are looking at, that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the Kingdom ahead of them, which no doubt did not sit well with them.  

Then the next part of Chapter 21 they again question his authority to clear the temple, and curse the fig tree.  And Jesus, as he is so apt at doing, answers their questions and accusations with another question, this time revolving around John the Baptist.  He asks them if John’s baptism came from heaven or human origin.  They then debate among themselves and they aren’t able to come up with an answer so Jesus tells them that he won’t answer where his authority comes from.  And then this is where Jesus begins to tell the parable of the two sons.  

The parable starts off this way, “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went”.  In this parable the first son, who said no, but then went, represents the tax collectors and sinners.  Their daily life seems to be saying “no” to God.  It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that they were running away from God and that they didn’t want to follow him.  Just look at their lifestyle, you can almost hear the religious leaders saying.  

But when they heard John, they changed their minds and their lifestyle.  In other words, repentance.  When confronted with their sin, the love of Jesus, and the Spirit of John, they changed their minds and believed.  They began to follow Jesus, even if at first they were going the other way.  Their past lifestyles did not disqualify them from the Kingdom.  Their repentance and faith were demonstrated by their obedience to Jesus, because of the preaching of John the Baptist.  They listen, heard, repented and obeyed.  In the parable terms, they said no to the Father, but then turned around and went out to work.

The parable continues “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”  If the first son represented the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, than the second son represents the religious leaders, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.  In the parable we see that the Father appealed to both of his kids as Sons.  Knowing they were the son of their faith should have made them willing to do his will.  And we see that one did his will and the other did not.  We see the second son answering His father with the word Sir.  The word for Sir is Kyrie which means Lord.  The Second Son was calling Him Lord but ended up not doing what he was asked.  The second son was one who said the right things but didn’t do the right things.  Very much like the religious leaders, the teachers, and the Pharisees.  They looked like they were doing God’s will but they refused to believe John’s message not only about repentance but about the Messiah as well.  They were keeping up external appearances of religion but their hearts were not right with God.  They had the external form of religion but were missing the heart.  They refused to do what John said even though they looked like God’s chosen ones.  Just like the second son, the religious leaders, teachers of the law, and the Pharisees, seem to be saying yes to the Father, but in actuality didn’t go.  They didn’t obey, didn’t repent, and didn’t follow what God the Father wanted from them.  

Then Jesus gets to the point of the parable as he brings the parable to a close.  He ends the parable with these words, “Truly I tell you, 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.”  Talk about dropping a bombshell which would not have been accepted very well.  The outcasts of Jewish society, the Tax Collectors and Prostitutes were entering the Kingdom before and ahead of the Religious Leaders, the teachers and the Pharisees.  No doubt this didn’t make Jesus more popular with the religious leaders.  The religious leaders who should most exemplify uprightness, did not believe, while those who are thought to be, unrighteous did believe and so entered the Kingdom.  The “outsiders” became “insiders” while the “insiders” were on the outside looking in, by their own lack of belief and lack of repentance.  With this ending statement Jesus is again confronting the “people of God” and waiting for their reaction to see if they are really the “people of God”.  Someone said, in relation to this ending of the parable that, “Jesus is trying to make the religious leaders “jealous” when the leaders saw ‘these kind of people’ repenting, changing their lifestyle, etc.. “ It should have made them wake up.  It should have led them to their own repentance.  But they weren’t convicted.  They didn’t honestly even feel like they needed to repent.  Because after all, they were the good and right ones.  Those other people only need to repent.  But they also felt threatened by these outsiders and they really didn’t want to be in the same kind of Kingdom that would let these “sinners”, these tax collectors and prostitutes in and on level playing field with the righteous ones who worked hard to earn their own way, or so they thought.  You can almost hear them saying, “But Jesus it isn’t fair that these people are entering the Kingdom before us.  We work hard.  We fast.  We pray.  We wash our hands.  We follow every rule.  Every jot and tittle.  But here are these sinners.  These people who don’t follow and don’t play by the same rules.  These people who live a filthy life.  And yet they get in a head of us.  How is that fair?”  And Jesus probably would have responded, “Of course it isn’t fair.  But all you have to do is not only say you’ll go, like the second son, but actually go.  Say Lord, I will follow you and then actually do it.”,    What matters is living for God, not saying the right words.  The religious leaders were good at talking righteous talk, but their stubborn, unrepentant hearts showed that repentant sinners would enter the Kingdom before them.  

So there are really two points to this whole parable.  First, it spells out the fact that Jesus wants more than just our lip service, and our external obedience.  Jesus wants our hearts and from there our obedience, lived out into the world.  He really wants us to combined the two sons, and when he calls, he wants us to say Yes we’ll go, and then actually go.  Neither son was really in the right.  Obviously one was more in the right than the other but neither was fully in the right.  They both brought dishonor to their Father.  The first by his words, “No.  I won’t go.”  The second by his deeds, “but he did not go.”  If you want to truly follow Jesus, say you’ll follow him by your words, and then put your words into actions and truly follow Jesus, his example, and his life, death and resurrection.  The challenge is to make sure we are responding to Jesus, allowing Him to confront us at any pony where we have been like the second son.  

The second point is that in God’s Kingdom the outsiders can really become insiders, and the insiders can become outsiders.  There is no one who we can write off as being too far outside God’s reach or God’s Kingdom.  The minute we right someone off, we play judge and we become the Pharisees.  And then the outsiders enter into the Kingdom before us.  What is your reaction to an “outsider” who becomes an “insider”?  Do we throw open the doors and say welcome?  Do we get made and say “what are you doing here?”  It reminds me of something Mike Yaconelli, an amazing man who loved teenagers, said in one of his books.  He said, “Nothing in the church makes people in the church more angry than grace. It's ironic: we stumble into a party we weren't invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus' irresponsible love, we decide to make grace "more responsible" by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out (which, as I understand it, are who the kingdom of God is supposed to include).” 

Let me finish by asking a few questions that I believe Jesus may be asking each of us (and our community) this morning.

  1. Are we participating in the Kingdom of God, not yet, but already arrived?
  2. Are we committed to active response and obedience to God and not just lip service?
  3. Are we becoming a member of God’s spiritual family?
  4. Are we showing a commitment to the Lost and the excluded?  The outsiders if you will (which really as Mike Yaconelli said..are really all of us)
  5. Are we willing to sacrifice when necessary, on behalf of the Kingdom?
  6. Which of us is doing the will of God?  

Let’s spend some time talking about the parable, how God is letting the outsiders become insiders, and what God may be saying through the parable to each one of us and our community as a whole. 

1.  What thoughts, insights, questions, comments, etc.. do you have regarding the Parable of the Two Sons, and/or the message?

2.   Put yourself in the shoes of both sons.  Share a time when you have been like the first son, when you said no I won’t go, but then went.  Share a time when you have been like the second son, when you said yes I’ll go but didn’t.  

 3.  What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it?  What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?