Choice. Choice is our ability to make decisions when presented with at least two options. Recently, my wife and I have enjoyed watching reruns of the gameshow, “Deal or No Deal.”
This was the gameshow in which a contestant chooses one briefcase from a selection of 26. Each briefcase contains a cash value from $0.01 to $1,000,000. Over the course of the game, the contestant eliminates cases from the game, periodically being presented with a "deal" from The Banker to take a cash amount to quit the game.
“Deal or No Deal,” is a form of choice that each of us in some regard has made in our life. Once we make the decision, the rules do not allow us to change our choice.
There are also choices we make daily which are changeable. These choices involve a difference between what we say we will do. That is a choice. And separately we can choose whether we will do what we said we would do. This is another choice. When our words and actions match, we are thought of as a person of their word. When our words and actions do not match, we characterized as “Saying one thing and doing another.”
I suspect all of us at one time or another have said one thing and done another. Sometimes it is a good thing we do not follow through with our words. Other times, not following through with our words brings harm to ourselves and others. Why do people behave differently than we speak?
There are several reasons we act this way and each of them involves some form of internal conflict. We say one thing and do another because something within us caused us to change our decision. Perhaps we realized our verbal decision was not the right choice, so we act differently. Perhaps we learned something new about what we were being asked, we were open to the new information, and decided to act in accordance with the new information. Perhaps we just tell people what they want to hear so they will leave us alone.
Now when we change our minds, it might be that we had a “change of heart.” A change of heart is usually one in which we move from a negative perspective to a positive perspective. For example, we might change have a change of heart and do something we said we would not do.
Alternatively, when we say we will do something and then do not do it, this change is usually from a positive perspective to a negative perspective. This type of change is not called a change of heart but a hardening of the heart.
The pairing and differences between the negative to positive and positive to negative choices was the subject of a parable Jesus told. There is much for us to learn about our faith walk in that parable. Jesus told this parable to a group of Pharisees. We will recall that the Pharisees were the best and brightest minds of the religious leadership of Israel.
The moment that Jesus told this parable was exceptionally tense. Jesus had just entered the Temple in Jerusalem, turned over the tables of those selling things in the Temple, and when questioned by the Pharisees by what authority he did what he did, he refused to answer their question.
Jesus then spoke directly to the Pharisees and told them this story, 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 ‘I will not,’ he [the son] answered, but later he [the son] changed his mind and went [into the vineyard and did work]. 30 Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. [‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’] He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”
A father had two sons and told each to do the same thing, “‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” The first son told his father he would not go. The son’s reply is problematic. The son had openly defied his father. This was a form of rebellion against the authority of the family and the son’s response was against his own interests. Afterall, the son was an heir to the father and stood to inherit the vineyard in which he refused to work.
But after first refusing to work in the vineyard, the son had a change of heart. When we have a change of heart, we move from going in one direction to going in the opposite direction. Something occurred within the son causing him to want to do as his father asked. The son, with a changed perspective, went, and worked in the vineyard. This son moved from the negative, “No, I will not go,” to the positive, “Yes, I will go.” Something within this first son caused him to move from his will to the father’s will.
Now as to the second son, he told his father that he would go and work in the vineyard as his father had asked. The son’s response was accepted as genuine, respectful, and welcomed. The son was openly in agreement with his father.
But after the father has asked, the son had an inward hardening of his heart. When our hearts harden, we become inclined to serve our own interests even if we have said otherwise. In the hardening of his heart, the son decided not to work in the field even though he said he would do so. This son moved from the positive, “Yes, I will,” to the negative, “No, I will not.” The son moved from the father’s will to his own will.
Now, having told the story, Jesus asked the Pharisees, “31’Which of the two [sons] did what his father wanted?’ ‘The first [son],’ they [the Pharisees] answered.” The Pharisees recognized that doing the will of the father, even if first refusing to do so, accomplished the will of the father. So, the son who said no and had a change of heart and did go to the vineyard had done the father’s will. The second son only spoke words of agreement with the father but never did what the father wanted. The will of the father, that work be done in the vineyard, was thwarted by the second son. There is that sense the second son was a hypocrite because he said he agreed with his father, the positive action, and then did nothing to fulfill his commitment, the negative action.
With the answer from the Pharisees, the parable was concluded. It was now left for Jesus to explain the parable to the Pharisees.
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 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.’”
Jesus had sprung a trap on the Pharisees. In the story, the first son represented the sinners of society, the tax collectors, hated by all Israelites, and the prostitutes, respected by no one in Israel. The second son represented the Pharisees, loved, and respected by Israelites for their devotion to prayer and study of the Scriptures.
Jesus told the Pharisees a hard truth. The tax collectors and prostitutes were more acceptable to God than the Pharisees. The people thought of as outcasts and unworthy of God’s love were most worthy. The Pharisees who were at the center of religious life would not be found in the kingdom.
What accounts for the difference in standing? One group had a change of heart and the other became hardened in heart. Jesus said this change all began when John the Baptist began preaching the message ahead of Christ Jesus.
In Chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew, we would read, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” There is that perfect nine-word sermon we spoke about last week. Repent, meaning, have a change of heart and turn from your will to God’s will is the operative action. It is as if John was saying, “I know you said “No, to the will of God in the past” but have a change of heart and do “Yes.”
“10 ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked [John]. 11 John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ 13 ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay’” (Luke 3:10-14). John told people now was the time to have a change of heart, repent, and show it by doing what was consistent with the Father’s will. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven was near. The time for a proper decision and action had come.
John said soon the long-awaited Messiah would come with a power message of salvation. In response to John’s message, the people, including tax collectors and prostitutes began to repent, have that change of heart from “No,” to “Yes,” from the negative to the positive, from following their will to following the will of God.
But the Pharisees did not accept John’s teachings and they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. The Pharisees saw no reason to repent because they believed looking and sounding religious was sufficient for God.
Jesus saw things very differently. In Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said seven times, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” The Pharisees were not following Jesus and thus were not following the will of the Father. What were the Pharisees doing? Jesus said to the Pharisees:
- “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Mt. 23:13). The Pharisees hindered rather than help people come to God.
- “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Mt. 23:15) The Pharisees converted people to Judaism and then burden them with their demands which were heavy and did not teach them the will of God, which is light.
- “[You say] ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’” (Mt 23:16) The Pharisees placed the treasure of gold above the treasure of God.
- “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Mt. 23:23) The Pharisees did what others could see and then neglected the most essential parts of a godly life; doing justice, loving mercy, and walking faithful with God.
- “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (Mt. 23:25) The Pharisees made themselves look good and clean on the outside but did nothing to change the inner being.
- “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Mt. 23:27) You look good on the outside but you are dead and decaying within.
- “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” (Mt. 23:29) With your pride, the Pharisees tore down others for killing God’s messengers all the while plotting to kill God’s son.
The Pharisees were the second son. They had said all the right things to convince others, and themselves, that they followed the will of the father, and then did none of what the father willed. They did only what they willed. They would not believe John that the time had come to change, and they did not believe Jesus that he was their Savior.
There is but one choice between two alternatives when God speaks to us. We can follow him or not. It is not necessary that we followed God in our past in order that we enter the kingdom of heaven. We can have said “No,” and then had a change of heart and followed Christ. God is OK with repentance. It is part of his plan. What God is not OK with is saying “Yes,” to God and then living in accordance with our own will.
Jesus came to invite each of us to work in the vineyard. He sent his son in the hopes that we would have a change of heart. How have you responded to God’s invitation to join him in the work of the kingdom? Let us pray.