You don’t have to journey very far into the New Testament before you begin to read about Jesus’ confrontations with the religious authorities of His day. While these religious leaders claimed to represent God, many of them held certain attitudes and beliefs that showed them to be far from where God really wanted them to be.
For example, here’s a parable that Jesus once told to the religious leaders of His day to show them the importance of living the kind of genuine, authentic lifestyle that really honors God…
“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work on the farm today.’ ‘I won’t,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father told the youngest, ‘You go!’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t” (Matthew 21:28:30).
A parable (like the one seen above) is short story that reveals an important spiritual truth or moral lesson. In a parable, you will often find a comparison or example from everyday life that’s used to uncover a hidden truth. Parables served as one of Jesus’ favorite ways to illustrate His teachings and Matthew 13:34-35 tells us that Jesus never taught the crowds who came to hear Him speak without using at least one.
Knowing this, we should note that Jesus began this parable by asking, “…what do you think about this?” Like a good teacher, Jesus doesn’t come right out and tell His listeners what to think- He’s going to present the right answer in such a way that they will be able to capture the truth for themselves.
So the father in this story went to the first son and said, “Hey, go work on the farm today” but the son refused to do what his father asked him to do. There were no apologies, excuses, or arguments from the older son, just a rude answer: “I won’t…” But the first son later had a change of heart and decided to do what his father had asked him to do.
Unlike the first son however, the second son was polite and respectful to his father. When he was asked to go and work on the farm, the second son responded by saying, “Yes, sir, I will.” But even though the second son respectfully agreed to do what his father asked, he never actually did what he promised to do.
When you stop to think about it, this treatment was even worse than the treatment that the father received from the first son. You see, while the older son was wrong to disrespectfully refuse to do what he was asked, at least he didn’t treat his father hypocritically like the younger son did. Anyway, this little drama set up the following question from Jesus…
“‘Which of the two was obeying his father?’ They replied, ‘The first, of course'” (Matthew 21:31a).
Now the answer to this question should be obvious to anyone, just as it was to those who heard Jesus tell this story. So what exactly was Jesus’ point? Well, Jesus went on to provide an explanation, but it was probably not one that His audience wanted to hear…
“Then Jesus explained his meaning: ‘Surely evil men and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom before you do. For John the Baptist told you to repent and turn to God, and you wouldn’t, while very evil men and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to repent, and so you couldn’t believe” (Matthew 21:31b-32).
When Jesus said that evil men and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom before you do, He couldn’t have given a more offensive comparison to the religious elite that He was speaking to.
You see, the “evil men” that Jesus spoke of here were the greedy tax collectors that charged people an excessive and unfair tax rate and then kept the extra money for themselves. Prostitutes, along with these tax collectors, were also considered to be among the very lowest members of society at that time.
Since the religious leadership of Jesus’ day believed that they were worthy of an important and respected position in society (see Mark 12:38-40), Jesus’ placement of these “lower-class” people ahead of them was sure to be seen by them as a major insult.
So why would Jesus make such a statement? Well, the tax collectors and prostitutes -like the first son in Jesus’ parable- changed their minds and committed themselves to following God after hearing God’s Word through John the Baptist (see Matthew 3:1-6). The religious leaders however, were a very different story. Like the second son in Jesus’ story, they paid “lip service” to God- they said one thing but did something else when it came time to actually do what God wanted them to do. Luke 7:28-29 explains their attitude like this…
“And all who heard John preach– even the most wicked of them– agreed that God’s requirements were right, and they were baptized by him. All, that is, except the Pharisees and teachers of Moses’ Law. They rejected God’s plan for them and refused John’s baptism.”
Even after seeing God’s work in the lives of these seriously ungodly people, many in the religious leadership still refused to turn back from their hypocritical lifestyles. On the other hand, those tax collectors and prostitutes who responded to God’s Word through John the Baptist showed the right kind of “attitude adjustment” that’s described for us in 2 Corinthians 7:10…
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (NIV).
So what’s the application for people today? Well, it’s possible for people to feel sorry about doing wrong things but still not do anything about it- that’s the kind of worldly sorrow spoken of above. It’s also possible to appear “religious” but still be very far away from God, just like those religious leaders that Jesus spoke His parable to.
But like those prostitutes and tax collectors in Jesus’ story, it’s never too late to turn around and begin living the kind of lifestyle that honors God. The thing that really matters is living an authentic life for God and not just paying religious lip service.