If you think the gates of heaven are closed to those with a less than stellar past, think again. Consider this intriguing little Jesus parable. ◊
Remember that kid in school who always told the teacher about some mischief someone else was conducting? They loved to point out bad behavior, as if it highlighted themselves as a model of virtue and goodness. They were prim and proper; it was their policing of others that made them irritating.
Then there was the kid that actually was full of mischief and always in trouble. They pushed the limits of appropriate behavior and resisted authority when caught and confronted with consequences. It’s almost like they expected to get busted and were resigned to the fact that they were one of the bad kids.
I wasn’t on either end of the spectrum but leaned toward the good boy side. However, I would never turn anyone in for crossing the line. I actually secretly admired the humor and boldness of the kids that often got in trouble. I was always bothered by the tattletale do-gooder. They seemed too stiff and self-righteous, not much fun, and not at all open to bending the rules even a little.
Where were you on the spectrum? Where are you now?
Parable of the Conflicted Sons
There’s a parallel lesson for all of us in the brief but fascinating story (Parable of the Two Sons) that Jesus tells in the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew. Both the audience and context of Jesus’ teaching are important to note in order to fully understand his point. This story is told the day after Jesus made his final triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then raised havoc by driving the money changers out of the temple. He is in the temple when confronted by the chief priests and the elders of the people he was teaching.
He has just addressed their challenge to Christ’s authority, cleverly cornering them into silence by flipping the question they posed into a question about the baptism teaching of John the baptizer – was it from heaven or from men? Any answer the chief priests and Pharisees gave would get them in trouble with the multitude.
“If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Matthew 21:25-27
While Jesus has them on the ropes, he tells the intriguing and simple Parable of the Two Sons:
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first son 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 second 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.” – Matthew 21:28-32
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He keeps pressing the point to the religious leaders with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (v. 33-46) and the Parable of the Marriage Feast (Matthew 22:1-14). The overall point is that God is forgiving and invites into the Kingdom any that believe and repent from wrong-doing, even woeful tax collectors and prostitutes (or initially defying and rebellious sons).
Though we are all conflicted at times and are prone to double-mindedness, it is the deniers of God and His coming and His message and His gift and His stature that are the bearers of His wrath and rejection, facing “outer darkness” where they “will weep and gnash their teeth.”
Paragons of Virtue and Sin
Like those good and bad kids in school, or grown adults that run the gamut from prim and proper citizens to rebels and criminals engaged in all manners of light and dark sin, we are actually all sinful. There is no hope nor pass available apart from the mercy of God. And thankfully, God is merciful to all of us, like that first son in the parable, who ultimately comes around to honor his father (representing God) and respond in obedience after his initial rebellion.
It is God’s love and grace alone – completely undeserved. It should bring us to our knees at the thought of His goodness and forgiveness applied to our shortcoming ways, past and present. And no amount of siding up to authority in condemnation of other people’s bad behavior, nor holding ourselves up as standards of noble virtue and wonderfulness, can supplant us from our lost and doomed plight as dirty sinners.
So, if you’ve lived a conflicted life, that is, you’ve told God “I will” but didn’t or “I won’t,” but then later changed your mind and repented and now obey and believe, gratefully and thankfully there is new life in Christ and hope for eternity.
And for those who through pride and faith in human or self-justification cling blindly to godlessness and self-righteousness, consider Jesus’ words directed to those who rejected him:
“Woe to you…like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean… [You appear] on the outside…to people as righteous but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)
Are you conflicted?
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. – Matthew 23:37-38