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Matthew 21:23-32

Pastor Jenny Lee, Ph.D.

 “What is Your Choice?” 

I want to start with a funny story. There were two evil brothers. They were very wealthy. One day, one of them died, and his brother said to the pastor, “I would like to make a deal with you. I will give large donations to your church under one condition. If at the funeral, you would say, my brother was a saint.” The pastor agreed, and the man donated. During the service, the pastor said, “This man was evil. He lied; he cheated; and he stole, but comparing with his brother, he was a saint.”

Like this funny story, some people want to show others as good people no matter how they live. However, remember, we can deal with people; we can lie to people, and we can sometimes live a hypocritical life, but we cannot hide anything from God. God is the One who “does not look at the outward appearance, but looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). What is your choice to look like good a good person or really be a good person at heart?

According to God’s direction, Samuel went to Jesse’s house to find the next king instead of Saul. Jesse has eight sons. Jesse called his sons and prepared for worship with his seven sons because he heard that Samuel came to pick one of his sons as the next king of the Israelites. Samuel tried to find the king who God might indicate, looking at them one by one. Samuel saw Jesse’s seven sons, but God did not say anything except, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Samuel became serious because he could not find the next king among Jesse’s sons. It was clear God sent him to Jesse’s house to find the next king. But God did not choose any of them. So, he asked Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” Jesse did not think that his youngest son would be a king. So, he did not call him to show Samuel. Samuel asked him to bring his youngest son, who is David. As soon as David came into the house, God says, “It’s him. Anoint him as the next king” (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Remember that God looks at our hearts, not the outward appearance. God chose David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, and a keeper of sheep. People never thought he would be a king.

Today’s scripture is about those people who live hypocritical lives. After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he cleaned up the Temple. At that time, the Temple of God became the place where the religious leaders and social leaders exploited people. That’s why Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:13). This act of Jesus challenges the religious leaders and social and political leaders. In the scripture, there are two sorts of people: the chief priests and the people’s elders.  The chief priests mean the religious leaders; the people’s elders represent the social and political leaders. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They are the people who have the authority of the world religiously, socially, and politically. No one dared challenge them so far. They lied to people; cheated people; stole from people; and ruled over the people as they wanted.

However, now they faced a big challenge. The leaders knew that Jesus is a poor carpenter from Nazareth of Galilee. They thought: “How dare a poor carpenter challenge us?” So, they asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Instead of answering them, Jesus asked them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They already knew John’s baptism is from God, but they did not believe in him because they are hypocritical. So, they answered Jesus, “we don’t know.” Jesus, instead of an explanation about the authority, tells them a parable story about two sons. Jesus starts this story with a question to them: “What do you think?”

I want you to think which one is good from God’s sight. A man has two sons. He asked two sons to work in his vineyard. The first said, “No, I will not,” but later he changed his mind, went to the vineyard, and worked. The second son said, “Yes, I will go, but he did not go.” Jesus asks them again, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They answered, “The first.”

What do you think? If you have two children like in the parable story, do you think which child did your will? In other words, which child would have your favor? This parable story is very clear about what Jesus talks about. The first son is a parable of the tax collectors, and prostitutes who are treated like sinners by religion and society. They did not know about God and the prophets, but later they learned about God and believed in God.

On the other hand, the second son is, as you may guess, the parable of the religious and social leaders. They already learned about God and taught people about God, but did not believe in God. Because they did not believe in God, they lived the hypocritical lives. They say, “Yes” to God, but they did not live according to God’s Commandment. Therefore, Jesus said to them, “ Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21:31).

We should know that believing in God is different from knowing God. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”(Matthew 7:21). Somehow we are used to religious lives as Christians. Some of you are Christians from birth or before being born. Now it is a good time to think of ourselves if we are a real Christian? John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, says, “We are almost Christians.”  The word “almost” means that “it is not 100 percent.” Some translation says, “We are Christians of 99 percentages.” Even though we tried to live in Christlikeness, we are still weak and immature human beings who have to grow in faith every day. Therefore, if we do not try to be Christians every day, we cannot live as Christians.

The Apostle Paul confessed his concerns about the Christian life: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He knew that even though he tried to be a good Christian, the self-centered mind comes to him. Therefore, he says, we have to depend on God because we are weak to control our mind. He says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind, I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, I am a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25). Christians are the people who confess their sins and weakness before God and ask God to help. In other words, Christians are those who have a God-centered mindset.

In the scripture, the tax collectors and prostitutes were treated like sinners by the social system, and then they were far from God. But, Jesus invited them as his friends, family, and God’s children. They accepted Jesus’ invitation and came to God. The parable story tells us that we all are sinners. The first and the second are sinners to his father (God’s sight). However, no matter what kind of lives they lived in the past, if they come to God, they would be God’s favor. If the father in the parable story has the third child, s/he might be a good child who says, “Yes,” and do it immediately. The Letter of James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17, NIV).  Here are three options for you: the first says, “No,” but later changed his mind and does it. The second says, “Yes,” but does not do it. The third one says, “Yes,” and does it. What is your choice, the first, the second, or the third? If you have faith in God, show God your faith.  Thanks be to God. Amen!