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Matthew 21:23-32

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v.23     The chief priests and elders made up the Sanhedrin the ruling council of the Jews.  So this was an official deputation that approached the Lord in the temple courts.  Obviously, people who have authority, as these men did, are all the more concerned about someone who feels free to exercise an authority that they had not conferred on him.  They had been bypassed and that offended them.

What is more, the Lord exercised an authority quite unlike anything they were accustomed to.  In that day, authority was derived from others.  A rabbi, for example, had to find an earlier rabbi and cite his opinion if he wished his position to be taken seriously. But Jesus spoke with his own authority, didn’t cite the rabbis before him, and demanded acceptance of his teaching as teaching from heaven.

v.25     This counter-question on the Lord’s part is sometimes viewed as a clever evasion on his part.  But the Lord is no longer worried about his answers and has no interest in evasion.  His hour had come.  In fact, the Lord’s ministry had been, from the beginning bound up with that of John.  John’s authority and his own would presumably come from the same place.  Many of John’s disciples had become the Lord’s own disciples.  John had himself declared Jesus to be the one who was coming after him, whose sandals he was not worthy to tie.  So it is not an evasion but a direct challenge:  “I am with John,” Jesus is saying, “what do you say about John.  For what you say about him will apply to me as well.”

But, more than this, John’s baptism was an offense to the religious leadership in precisely the same way that the Lord’s teaching and ministry was an offense.  Both did not hesitate to say that living as a loyal Jew, as the Pharisees and scribes and priests understood that loyalty, conforming to the standards of contemporary religious life was not enough, not nearly enough.  Indeed, they said more than that.  They said that the way of priests and elders in that day was the wrong way.  Both said that there was something fundamentally amiss with that religious life and that there was a great need, an urgent need for repentance on the part of the people.  John’s, remember, was a baptism of repentance. But if John and Jesus were saying that they had to repent of the life that the religious leadership was not only teaching them to live but living themselves, no wonder those leaders took offense.  When Jesus drove out of the temple merchants and money-changers that these chief priests had allowed to be there and do their work there he was as much as accusing these men of corrupting the temple.  No wonder they took offense.

v.27     The religious leadership knew how to answer the Lord’s question but they did not want to answer it publicly.  They didn’t accept John or Jesus as a prophet from God. There was no question about that. But they were politicians and didn’t want to offend their constituency by coming out and saying what they thought. They knew how popular John had been and still was with the people.  They knew that they thought he was a prophet.  The elders were like the modern evolutionary scientist who doesn’t want to say in public that you can’t believe in evolution and still believe in God because he knows the howl that will result if he does.  That’s what he believes, but that isn’t what he’s going to say.

Now we are going to read just the next paragraph, but that happens to be the first in a series of three parables:  the two sons, the tenants and the wedding banquet.  It is important to realize that all three of these parables are directed against the religious leadership.  Matthew reminds us of that in v. 45.  Remembering that helps us to understand what each parable is intended to teach.

v.30     In 23:3 the Lord will again describe the religious leaders as those who say but don’t do.

v.32     The parable is simple and its point is obvious.  It is not what one claims or promises but what one actually does that counts.  It is not promise but performance.  [France, 306]  The religious styled themselves as the servants of God but they disobeyed him.  On the other hand, the people the religious leadership despised, those who seemed least religious, least righteous – the dregs of society who made no pretense of being righteous and pious – at the last they obeyed God.  And, of course, the chief criteria by which this obedience or disobedience is detected, as he says in v. 32, are faith and repentance.  Of course, in the context, that means that the real issue is the view taken toward Jesus himself, the Messiah of whom John prophesied and whose coming he announced. The conventionally religious, who went through the outward motions and caused no scandal, failed to embrace the kingdom of God because they didn’t receive Jesus, while the outcasts, regarded as impure by those who thought themselves righteous, did what God required of them first by responding in repentance and faith to John’s message and then by responding in the same way to Jesus.

Some years ago, John Stott was invited to attend the Assembly of the World Council of Churches as an official adviser.  He was a kind of token evangelical Christian at that largely liberal gathering. At one point in one of the plenary sessions he was asked to give a formal response to one of the addresses, an address typical for its lack of any concern to be faithful to the teaching of Holy Scripture.  Stott used his ten minutes to list five things that he felt the World Council needed to recover:

1) the doctrine of man’s lostness (over against the popular universalism of the day), 2) confidence in the truth, relevance and power of the biblical gospel (without which evangelism is impossible), 3) the uniqueness of Jesus Christ (over against all syncretism), 4) the urgency of evangelism (alongside the urgent demands of social justice), and 5) a personal experience of Jesus Christ (without which we cannot introduce others to him).

Delegates were seated alphabetically so Stott had been seated next to Krister Stendahl, the Swedish theologian from Harvard.  When Stott returned to his seat after delivering his short address Dr. Stendahl leaned over to offer his comment on his remarks:  “I did not agree with one word you said!”  [Dudley-Smith, John Stott, ii, 206]

For a supposedly Christian minister to strenuously disagree with those five assertions – and to do so after hearing one speaker after another openly dissent from the teaching of the Bible – precisely duplicates the mind of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day.  They claimed to be faithful, pious, righteous, devout – but they had substituted their own thinking for the Lord’s and the proof, the inescapable demonstration of that fact was their refusal to submit to the Messiah who had come from heaven, the Messiah who was standing before them, who had performed miracles, given teaching, and lived such a holy life as to put his credentials beyond dispute.  They couldn’t stand that he disagreed with them, that he had had the temerity to condemn their ideas and to impugn their motives.  The church was full of such people then, has been ever since, and is today.

This appearance without reality, this promise without performance, this feigning holiness while denying its true meaning is what the Bible calls hypocrisy.  And it comes in many forms.  It is not only the sin of those who style themselves faithful believers but whose theological views deviate from the true faith.  That is what it was in the case of these priests and elders of Israel.  That is what it is in the case of modern liberal Christians, who insist on using the Lord’s name but deny virtually everything he taught and did.  Krister Stendahl’s response and that of the priests and elders that day in the temple courts is, in this respect, the same.  It was as hypocritical for the Pharisees of that day to call themselves Jews and style themselves faithful people of God’s covenant as it is for many nowadays who deny the authority of the Bible and the supremacy of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world to call themselves Christians.

But the same sin that the Lord is exposing in the parable of the two brothers and in his confrontation with the priests and elders can be committed in other ways.   In Philippians 1 Paul will tell us about orthodox preachers who proclaim the gospel – the real gospel! – but do so for false and selfish motives.  They pretend that they care about the souls of lost men, but they are really after their money, or fame for themselves, or, even, a better name than that of some other Christian evangelist.  They preach the truth. They appear to be selfless; interested in the welfare of others, but it is all pretense.  They are driven in fact by rivalry and selfish ambition.

Or this appearance without reality, this promise without performance can take the form of the confession of Christian faith while living in open defiance of Christ’s law and example.  That had been the case with the ancient Israelites too often through their history.  They confessed Yahweh’s name but also consorted with idols, indulged sinful sexual lusts, suborned justice, and mistreated the poor.  Time and time again the prophets excoriated their contemporaries for this galactic hypocrisy.  Claiming to revere God they had nothing but open disdain for his will. Claiming to love his covenant they trampled on its stipulations. This was not the hypocrisy of the priests and elders, the scribes and Pharisees, who had a great concern for God’s law.  It is not the sin of those who call themselves believers but reject the Bible’s teaching and the doctrines of Jesus Christ and his salvation.  Theirs was another kind of promising but not performing.  But, at bottom, it is the same sin when people who profess Christ live openly unchristian lives.  It is promising and not doing

And that has happened, alas, times without number in the history of the church since.  Think of the medieval knight, Charles de Blois, who expressed his piety by wearing a hair-shirt and often going barefoot in the cold, but was, at the same time, famous for his ruthlessness and was not embarrassed by his illegitimate children.  Or think of the Scottish Cardinal and archbishop, just before the dawning of the Reformation, who, though carefully observing the worship of the Mass, and though having taken the sacred vow of celibacy, had, by some counts, as many as 20 children for whom he made some formal financial provision.  The Scottish church of those days spent a considerable amount of the Lord’s money caring for the children of her celibate priests!

And you should all know of the great Roman Catholic priest, Bartolome de las Casas, and his great book The Only Way.  The full title of his book is The Only Way to Draw All People to a Living Faith.  Las Casas was the priest who, almost single-handedly, and in the face of bitter opposition, fought for the just and humane treatment of the Indian population in the early years of the Spanish conquest of the new world.  His was an unhappy life because, like Isaiah, he lived and worked among a people who could happily reconcile their Christian faith and worship with the most brutal mistreatment of other human beings, and that for money.  Las Casas lamented in his great book that the church had been handed a golden opportunity to win the Indians of the new world to the gospel of Christ by demonstrating Christ’s love and, instead, they imprisoned them, reduced to slave labor, and raped and murdered them without mercy.  The Only Way is a deeply evangelical book, a faithful biblical argument, and an impassioned plea that so-called Christians act like Christians and not like pagans in the conduct of their affairs and the treatment of others.  How little, alas, was this done.

But, then, we don’t have to go back several centuries to a Roman Catholic world to find this kind of hypocrisy.  We can find it in our own time and among evangelical Christians.  Ministers who preach salvation in Christ while in the midst of dalliances with women not their wives; television ministers who get fabulously wealthy by preying on the hopes of the gullible folk who watch them, and ministers, like these priests and elders of Jesus’ day, who care more for their power and place in the church, for their fame and reputation than for the gospel of God and the salvation of souls.

But, of course, it isn’t just the priests and elders.  In every life, there is the constant show, the pretense, the appearance to cover the reality, the failure to perform according to even one’s own ethical standards.  I was on the airplane not so long ago and in the row in front of me a woman had accidentally spilled her Pepsi on the man sitting next to her.  I didn’t realize what had happened until he stood up in the aisle and very politely and calmly asked the stewardess for something to dry himself with as there had been a spill.  I thought, “Good show, fellow.”  He had responded with patience and had acted like a gentleman.  But after he had gone down the aisle to the restroom, the woman herself stood up in the aisle.  She was clearly shaken and whispered to the stewardess, “I spilled my Pepsi on him and he is very angry with me.”  Once again, the cover-up; the pretense; the appearance without the reality; the promise without the performance.  He knew what was right – his behavior toward the stewardess showed that – he made the promise to go, like the second son, but he had not gone, he had not done what was right.  He had been cruel to the poor woman whose accident had so angered him.  Everyone is like that, religious and irreligious people alike.  Indeed, hypocrisy is such a problem in the church precisely because it is endemic in human life, because the moral pose is the instinct of all human beings who, made in God’s image, are nevertheless in rebellion against him.  But this hypocrisy is particularly egregious in religious people and by far it is the worst in those who confess to be Christian people.  It is dishonest, it is an insult to the honor of Christ, and it defeats the purpose for which we have been redeemed by his precious blood.

But this hypocrisy is, alas the great fact of life in Christendom and it is constantly being churned up in these various forms. It is the bottom sin of liberal forms of Christianity in which naked unbelief masquerades as loyalty to Christ.  And it is the sin of evangelical life whenever we promise – and our entire Christian life is a promise made to Christ and to others – and do not perform, when we say we will go, as we do every Sunday, and then do not go.

And here, in Matthew, in what we have now often called the Gospel of Discipleship, the Gospel of the Christian Life, we hear the Lord Jesus say once again that those who confess him must follow him and live as he lived; those who call themselves Christians must live as Christians.  After all, Matthew, at the time he wrote his Gospel, was not terribly concerned to point out the error of Jews who lived a generation earlier.  That is not his great interest here in telling us of the Lord’s encounter with the priests and elders and his parable of the two sons.  He is giving us a historical record, to be sure.  He is telling us what happened and he is explaining why Jesus was executed.  But, as he wrote his Gospel, he was really interested in teaching Christians how to live and warning them not to make the same mistake made so often by so many church people, of pretending rather than being, of saying rather than doing, of promising rather than performing.  After all, it is the priests and elders who promised but did not perform.  It was the religious people, the moral people; the very kind of people Christians would appear to be.  But we must not be like them.  We must not be pose, and show, and pretense and claim and not have faith, repentance, and holy living.

In the case of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day, hypocrisy took one form.  Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson as once having said to the Abbess of a convent, “Madam, you are here, not for the love of virtue, but the fear of vice.”  And that perfectly describes the Pharisees and other religious leaders that had the same mind.  They were careful to avoid the tiniest vices, but, in doing so, had completely, willfully lost sight of the grand and glorious things of the true faith:  God’s saving love and grace to unworthy sinners, their own great guilt and need, and that the entire law is summed up in love for God and for others.  Forgetting these things they could not see Christ as Savior when he stood before them.  How many times has that happened in Christian history since!  Christian leaders, ministers and bishops, who are zealous beyond belief for this or that, but no longer can bring themselves to confess and to call others to faith in Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior of the world.  They are, in their very modern and very polite way, one with those who tithed mint, dill, and cumin but then crucified the Lord of glory.  But it matters not what form it takes, it is the hypocrisy of saying one will go and not going that we find everywhere we look and, worst of all, in our own hearts.

John Bunyan called Christian hypocrisy – the pretense without the reality, the promise without the performance – “the back way to hell.”  And what bites us in this text, as in so many texts in this Gospel of the Christian life, is how it lays us bare.  We know, we know all too well, how often we have promised and not gone, to what a terrible extent our life is more promise than performance, more appearance than reality.  We know full well how many times and in how many ways our life has not been, not been by a long shot, the consistent working out of our loyalty to Jesus Christ, our reverence for his Word, and our commitment to his Name and his cause.

And how subtle its ways!  How easily we find ourselves slipping into this habit of promising but not performing.  We take comfort in our right beliefs and our right associations and scarcely give a thought to the vast chasm that separates what we are from what we know we ought to be.  In other words, too often we rejoice that we made the promise of going, and forget that we never went.

But here is the difference and here is the blessing of this stern teaching for you and for me.  In the Lord’s case what he said fell, as it usually falls, on stone-deaf ears.  The churchmen who listened to Jesus speak and to tell this little story about the two brothers did not repent in dust and ashes.  They didn’t, in a moment of stunning clarity, finally see themselves for the fakes that they were.  Quite the contrary.  They resented the Lord’s criticism.  They knew he was talking about them and they hated him for it.  Who was he to criticize them?  They denied his allegations and they set about getting even; doing what they could first to ruin the reputation of Jesus and plotting his death. The disciples of the Lord Jesus are being taught in this section of Matthew’s Gospel what true discipleship entails.  What it means to be a follower of Christ and what distinguishes true and false professions of loyalty to God and to his covenant. And, as we have so often had occasion to say, it is not sin, it is not even the sin of hypocrisy that really separates Christians from non-Christians.

But too often the faithful hear all of this and sink into near despair.  For they see themselves in all of this.  They see themselves all too clearly in the priests and the elders who promised and didn’t perform.  We know, don’t we, that we often and far too much make much more of the little things rather than the great things of our faith.  For too often merely going to church is the most faithful thing we do in serving the Lord Christ and in demonstrating that we are his followers.  We know how much and how often we seem to be counting our right belief, our proper convictions as making up for the fact that in too many ways we still do not do what our Savior has told us to do.  And we are sharp-sighted enough to know that we often do the right thing for the wrong reason or, at least, for more of the wrong reason than the right.

We come to worship out of habit rather than that we can’t wait to raise our voices in the praise of Christ our Savior.  We give our money out of a sense of duty rather than out of cheerful delight in serving the Lord and his kingdom in a meaningful way.  We give attention to others dutifully or even to meet the expectations of others rather than for the sake of compassion, affection, and love.  We know how often we have an eye to our reputation when we do what we do as Christians.  We know full well that what the Lord found in the hearts of those hypocritical priests and the elders we can find in our own hearts today.

There is nothing wrong about this dismay about ourselves.  It will make us more careful to make our calling and election sure.  If you remember, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome that the fact that the Lord had rejected so many of the Jews – who were so sure that they were on God’s side – should humble them and make them properly cautious.  “For,” Paul wrote in Romans 11:20, “if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”

But this also must be said.  If you are struck by how much this parable that the Lord told against the chief priests and elders applies to you, and how unerringly the Lord has laid bare the truth about your own heart and your own life, remember this and take heart.  True hypocrites, in the nature of the case, do not worry about such things or take to heart such warnings.  These men didn’t take the Lord’s teaching to heart.  Far from it.  And they didn’t precisely because they were hypocrites.  The man or the woman who feels the burden of these criticisms, fears that they expose the inconsistency of his or her own life, who mourns to find the Lord’s words hitting home, that person is not really the hypocrite.  He or she is the sinner saved by grace and by Jesus Christ.  He or she is precisely the person who knows he will never get to heaven by his own performance – when he promises so much more than he performs – and so counts instead on Christ’s performance – his perfect performance – in his or her place.

How many times has the Lord made this same point in his teaching recorded in this Gospel of Matthew.  Throughout the Gospel we are reminded that this honest self-appraisal, this facing of facts about ourselves, our behavior and our character, this painful acceptance of the hard truth about our sinful hearts and lives is the prerequisite of true faith in Christ and so of obtaining eternal life.  The Lord began his Sermon on the Mount with this thought – “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – he invited sinners to come to him with this thought – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” and, “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” – and now again he has returned to this fundamental reality.  Facing one’s own sin and guilt, admitting one’s own impossibly great need, is what God requires of you and all that he requires of you.  No wonder then that Christ should make such a point of bearing down upon us all with the hard facts about ourselves.  No wonder he should be at such pains to prove to us how sinful, how self-absorbed, how proud we are and how unwilling to acknowledge the truth about ourselves.

The hero of G.K. Chesterton’s series of detective stories, Father Brown, once explained his method of detection this way:  “You see, it was I who killed all those people…”  The Christian knows what Father Brown meant and what Chesterton was saying.  He looked within himself both to find the mentality that would produce such a crime and the many ways one would use to cover it up.  He understood the criminal mind because he found that mind in himself.  But then Chesterton has Father Brown philosophize still further.  “No one’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how [little] right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away…till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees….”  [In Packer, I Want to Be a Christian, 290]

It is in this way that Jesus says the bad are those who do good.  It is those who know themselves bad, and only those, who can see Jesus Christ as their hope both for peace with God and a better, purer, more loving life for themselves.  So long as the priests and elders saw themselves as better than others, they were blind both to themselves and to Christ.  It is the people who know they desperately need to change, that they cannot remain what they are, who will repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  It is the person who, morally speaking, knows he must number himself among the tax collectors, knows she belongs with the prostitutes, who will see Jesus for who is he, appreciate why he had to die, and will believe in him.

And at the last, that person will become the truly good person:  honest, pure, righteous, loving – the person the hypocrite imagined himself to be but was not.