Which of the two did what his father wanted? Matthew 21:31 (NIV)
During our trip to the Gospel Alliance Conference at Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana last fall, a number of our group that had traveled from Pella enjoyed some time in the hotel’s lobby sharing stories and laughs. At one point, the conversation turned to playing the game “Would You Rather.” If you’ve played this game, you know that the person whose turn it is must pick two bad choices and then ask everyone else in the group which one they would rather do. Thus the name of the game, “Would You Rather.” We explored all sorts of options from eating disgusting food to taking outrageous risks.
When I arrived home, the concept of the game remained on my mind. Life so often presents us with less than ideal choices. We long for the perfect or the easy, but reality is right there eager to crowd in and remind us of the fallen world in which we live.
Jesus engages his listeners in his own version of this game in Matthew 21:28-32 when he asks the Pharisees which son, both of whom gave less than ideal responses, did what the father asked of them. “What would you rather do,” Jesus seems to ask, “reject Him but later do what He wanted, or promise the father obedience and later deceive Him?”
Two bad choices. Unfortunately, they are ones that our hearts default into easier than we care to admit. Hypocrisy can be so subtle and yet so deceptive. I wonder if this is what Jesus hoped the Pharisees in the audience would catch on to. Don’t keep all the rules and assent to true doctrine if it only stays in your head. Love God. Devote your life to Him. Live in faith as a way of life, not just as a Sunday morning posture.
Jesus is asking for repentance here, not as a legalistic demand such as the Pharisees were accustomed to making, but as a gesture of grace. He wants them in the kingdom too. He holds up the tax collectors and the prostitutes as examples in an effort to generate urgency under their decision. “Come in out of your legalism and hypocrisy,” Jesus again seems to say. “Would you rather stay trapped in your self-righteous observance of the Law and allow the sinners to enter the Kingdom ahead of you, or would you rather surrender your grasp on power and repent?”
In a Pharisee’s mind, these were both bad choices. They couldn’t stand the idea of sinners gaining something they could not. Neither could they give up power and do what Jesus asked of them.
While Jesus is challenging the chief priests and teachers of the Law, he is also opening a window allowing for a glimpse of a lovely truth. The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom! They are hearing Jesus’ call, believing His message, receiving healing, and finding a home in the Kingdom of God.
What does this mean for us? First, I believe we must always be in tune with our hearts. Are we sincere before God? Are we devoted to Him? Do we desire Him? Depending on how we answer those questions, we need to do the hard yet fruitful soul work so that we can answer “yes” to devotion and to desire.