Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
From Matthew, chapter 21:
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.
I’d like to start with a brief survey this morning: If you were a child at any time in your life, please raise your hand. Yes, I think that applies to most of us here today. So, you can probably easily relate to the behavior of the two sons in the Gospel lesson. Who among us can truthfully say that we always cooperated willingly with our parents?
Depending on your own experience, you might identify more closely with one son or the other. Perhaps, like the first son, you often gave your parents a hard time, but in the end you usually ended up doing what was asked and expected of you. Or maybe you were more like the second son: Agreeable and pleasant to their face, but when their backs were turned or you were out of the house, you got away with whatever you could, shirked responsibility, and undermined their authority.
If I had to give an answer about my own behavior as a young person, as to whether I was more like the first son or the second son, to be truthful I’d have to say… “Yes, I sure was.” Born as fallen sinners, we inherit the stain and scar of sinfulness from the very parents God used to give us life. Therefore, we all found ways to give them a hard time and let them down.
It would be very easy to take this Gospel text and turn it into a life lesson on good behavior. To point out how these two sons misbehaved. To encourage us to do a better job of respecting authority, obeying parents, and leading righteous lives. After all, it’s clear to us that both of the sons broke the 4th Commandment on honoring father and mother, and broke the 8th Commandment on bearing false witness. The message that “you should behave better to show your love for your earthly parents and your heavenly Father” may be preached from many pulpits today.
While such a message is true and important, it also is missing the point. To preach that this parable primarily calls for obedience to our earthly and heavenly fathers is putting a human perspective on a divine revelation. And—worse yet—it would be turning today’s Gospel into Law. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of Law in today’s lesson. First of all, there are the chief priests and elders to whom Jesus is speaking. Many of them Pharisees, they thought they were the human embodiment of the Law; the theological offspring of Moses the Lawgiver. So much so that they created and required and lived by hundreds of detailed regulations.
Their intent was to show God and their fellow Jews their piety and visibly righteous behavior, so they would be respected by men and receive special favor from God, even unto salvation. The whole context for this parable is that these leaders were insisting that Jesus tell them what authority He had to teach, to preach, to heal, to drive the merchants and moneychangers from the temple, and from whom had He been given it. They were exercising their position under the Law, demanding He satisfy their inquiries.
There’s also the matter of the sons in the parable not following the Law, by being disobedient to their father. As you know, Jewish society was highly patriarchal. The eldest male in a household had complete authority over the family. It was no small thing for a son to disobey a father, so when Jesus asked which of these two sons was doing the father’s will, the leaders probably thought was throwing them an easy, obvious question—a big, fat pitch they could hit clean out of the park.
Their unhesitating answer, though in accordance with the Law in a narrow sense, brought the condemnation of that very Law down upon themselves. Jesus uses this parable of the two sons as an analogy for those who possess two different types of righteousness. On the one hand, there are blatant, obvious sinners—outcasts from the respectable crowd due to the humanly-measured enormity of their offenses. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and others whose behavior didn’t approach that of the more religious. They also didn’t even meet the minimum standards to remain members of the community of faith.
You could probably come up with your own list of those you’d find unacceptable as church members in our day and age. Former drug dealers, perhaps. Converted terrorists. Paroled child molesters. Illegal aliens. AIDS patients. The ones we humanly judge to be too far gone, too offensive, too sinful ever to be brought into this fellowship of forgiven sinners. Who could only receive righteousness if it were given to them.
On the other side of the coin, there are the outwardly religious. Confident. Smooth. Saying all the right words with just the right smiles. The right sort of connections. The right sort of appearance and behavior. Those defining righteousness as something they can achieve on their own, according to their own standards and interpretation of the Law. They hedge their bets; they smooth out the demands of God’s Law into something they hope, even expect, to be able to fulfill.
But when it comes right down to it, we are caught in a trap of our own devising. For when we think we can adjust God’s Law to fit our own needs and desires and limitations, it becomes our own law. And at that point, we become a law unto ourselves, which is rebellion from God, anarchy of the soul, and a path to our eternal destruction and death.
The religious ones had been presented with both the Law and the Gospel in the ministry of John the Baptist. They had seen how those who admitted they were sinners, who were open, honest, and desperate enough to confess their bad behavior and repent of it, had come to hear and believe the good news John had preached. The news that sins could be forgiven. That a washing by water and God’s word could give them a fresh start and bring them into His kingdom. They no longer needed to live in shame and fear; the Redeemer of Israel was at hand.
The religious leaders had seen this change in the tax collectors and prostitutes and other “sinners” who followed Jesus. They had seen what the power of God’s word, and repentance, and rebirth of baptism, could do for these lives. But these leaders were the second son in the parable—the one who had given lip service to his father’s request but, once the father was out of sight, did not obey. Like the second son, they had witnessed both the initial rebellion of their brothers, and their eventual repentance and obedience. They had shown great interest in John and his ministry initially. Yet, they refused to humble themselves, to repent of their own sins, and to submit themselves to the Father’s authority.
The key distinction between the religious leaders and the repentant sinners is the definition and source of their righteousness. And righteousness is what the Christian life is all about. We can take the second son’s version of righteousness. That is, to speak and act how we think God and others want us to. Or, like the first son, we can realize that we we’re guilty of rebuffing and rejecting His direction, and must turn back in repentance and toward the certainty of His forgiveness.
Just what is our understanding of righteousness, anyway? And what is the “way of righteousness” in verse 32? Jesus said that John had shown this “way” to the people, but the religious leaders had rejected it. How could these men, the most religious in all Israel, not follow the “way of righteousness”?
First, we need to understand that—particularly in Matthew’s gospel—righteousness goes beyond mere adherence to the Law. It is not some sort of checklist to be filled out to ensure good standing with God. As Jesus pointed out earlier in Matthew’s gospel, God’s blessings cause the sun to rise and the rain to fall for both evil and good people. Perhaps, then, we can find a clue as to righteousness from earlier in Matthew, too.
Joseph the carpenter finds that his bride-to-be, Mary, is pregnant out of wedlock. Because he is a “righteous man”, he plans to divorce her quietly to save her public disgrace. He is not called “righteous” because he was following the Law in dissolving the marriage, but because he was showing undeserved mercy to another when outrage and severe punishment would have been the norm. True righteousness, then, has something to do with grace, with unmerited favor, of doing the right thing for the right reasons, with more concern for another than for one’s self.
A definition such as this goes against the grain of both the world and our sinful natures. We like to measure and compare and rate ourselves on how we stand in relation to others, whether in income or education or looks or skill. We sometimes even attempt to place people on a humanly-defined scale of righteousness, to rate one as “good” or righteous, or as “bad” or evil. Yet this is futile, for if even you are a “9.999” on the scale of righteousness and your neighbor is a “3”, you both remain an immeasurably great distance from a God whose holiness and righteousness is infinite. And being an infinite distance from the glory and comfort and mercy and love of a perfect God is an accurate picture of sin, death, and hell.
Those who are called “righteous” by Jesus are not those who are righteous in their own eyes or the eyes of others. In fact, those who are self-consciously righteous exclude themselves from God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ because they possess a false, self-generated righteousness. However, their own righteousness does not save them. It may earn the world’s approval, but it yields nothing but rejection and condemnation from the Lord.
We cannot hope to be saved by trying to “out-Pharisee” anyone. Strictly adhering to an extensive list of “dos” and “don’ts”, hoping that God will see what good people we are, will not earn us forgiveness and eternal life. It is a futile exercise, for Jesus said, “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Even their highly-disciplined approach to following God’s Law with all their extra regulations did not satisfy God’s requirements. Nor can we.
Perhaps the hymnal can point us in the right direction. Our Lutheran musical heritage is bountiful with hymns that declare the complete insufficiency and uselessness of our own efforts to become righteous. We do not sing of how great our praise must sound to God, and how hard we are going to work to meet His demands, now that we’re converted. Rather, we sing with humility and thanksgiving and wonder at His merciful and undeserved love, his gracious pardon which covers even your sins and mine. In the words of one particularly beautiful and appropriate hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; No merit of my own I claim, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
Sinners called by Jesus, then, claim no self-righteousness worthy of His attention or His reward. Rather, He provides us our righteousness, out of His own righteousness. And He has that righteousness because of His divine nature and His obedient Sonship. He didn’t refuse His Father, only to change His mind like the parable’s first son. Nor did He tell His Father He would go work in the vineyard and then blow it off, like the second.
No, this perfect Son, in Paul’s words from today’s Epistle Lesson:
“Being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
Here, then, is the one who did the will of His father, whose true obedience was neither reluctant repentance nor deceitful lip service. Here, for you and me, is righteousness made flesh. Only through this man of righteousness can we can be reconciled to the Father. Only through this man of righteousness can our sins can be wiped away. Only through this man of righteousness can we can be declared innocent of all our wrongs.
This righteous Jesus calls sinners, not the self-righteous. Jesus calls you, not those convinced of their moral superiority. Jesus calls you, the individual who is convinced of your own unworthiness, but is even more certain in the perfect merits of Christ. Jesus calls you, so that your repentance is heard, your belief is confessed, and His righteousness is made yours.
Like a physical need for food and drink, this spiritual longing cannot be met from within ourselves. It must be provided to us externally. Given to us in the Word of God which fills us with hope. Poured out upon us in the cleansing and refreshing waters of the baptismal font. Placed within us by the nourishment of the Holy Supper. It is here in this place that we Christians find our poverty of spirit turned into riches of comfort and joy, time and time again. Here in His house, our hunger and thirsting for righteousness is satisfied by Him who is righteousness Himself.
What of our earlier question, then? What is this “way of righteousness” which John the Baptist came to show Israel? The religious leaders missed it, for Jesus says they did not believe John, and that they were being left out of the kingdom of heaven, even as the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering. It can only be, then, that this “way” is the one those habitual sinners followed, and those proud, self-satisfied leaders rejected: The “way of righteousness” is repentance and belief in the salvation God provides in Jesus Christ.
We rejoice with all the redeemed sinners, then, ever thankful for the righteousness which is made ours through the blood of the one sinless, obedient Son. May we remain in the “way of righteousness” through daily repentance and unfailing trust in God. This way has been shown to us by Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Righteous One of God, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.