(BLEEP) in Paradise
The theme of our text is "BLEEP in Paradise." I know it's a bit untoward but that's what Jesus says, isn't it? There will be "BLEEP in Paradise." I could have avoided the whole BLEEP thing by titling this "IRS Agents in Heaven," but as much as you may dislike the IRS, they're not the same as New Testament tax collectors. And no matter how much you may dislike the IRS, the title "IRS Agents in Heaven" wouldn't have shocked you the way Jesus shocked His hearers when He spoke this parable. And make no mistakes about it: Jesus meant to shock His hearers. Jesus spoke this parable on the Tuesday before the Friday He was crucified. This is His last call for the weary to come to Him for rest.
Jesus starts out with a PG parable. There was a man who had 2 sons. He goes to the first saying, "My son, go and work in the vineyard today." He doesn't politely answer, "I will not," but rudely, disrespectfully, "No! I don't want to!" Such a response from your child would probably call forth, and rightly so, a slap in the face, but that didn't happen. Something more amazing did: The belligerent boy thought again, and did his Father's will rather than his own. After being told off by the first son, the Father gives the other the same command: "Son, go and work in the vineyard." How His heart was thrilled to hear the boy answer, "I myself will be glad to go, sir!" What father doesn't delight in respectful obedience from his children?
"But he did not go." That's what the insert translates but that's not what the text says. There's no "but" about it. The other child didn't change from being willing to go to being unwilling. It wasn't that he intended to go but then didn't. No, the text says that he said yes and did not go. There was no change, no second thought, no thinking again. He simply said what he knew his old man wanted to hear, and then he did what he always intended on doing, not go to work at all.
"Which of the two did the will of the father," Jesus asked His hearers? Not the one who said yes willingly without any willingness, but the one who said no willingly but thought better of it later. Now we come to the turning point in the story.
Right after the chief priests and the Pharisees responded correctly that it was the child who thought again and went, that did the father=s will, Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." The point is tax collectors and prostitutes did the will of the Father: they entered the kingdom of God! If you have any doubts that God's will is that people go to heaven turn to 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."
Jesus wasn't looking for more workers in the vineyard; He was looking for more souls in heaven. Jesus wasn't looking for more people to do more things for God; He was looking for more people for God to do more things for. The chief priests and Pharisees thought just the opposite. They thought God needed them as workers and they were working just fine in the vineyard for Him. The tax collectors and prostitutes were the problem. They did no work in the vineyard; they did no work for God.
So imagine how sharply slapped they must have felt when they were told the tax collectors and prostitutes were going to heaven ahead of them? That's like me pointing to call girls and saying, "These are going to heaven ahead of you. These ladies who recently were peddling their bodies have had their souls saved ahead of yours."
Make sure you feel the slap that the chief priests and Pharisees did. They really did give large amounts to the church. They really did go to church every time the doors were open. They really did know all the correct religious terms. They really were very much at home in the church. They were the church leaders and members who remembered their prayers before every meal. And Jesus bluntly tells them: prostitutes go to heaven before you will.
Still don't feel the slap? Let me try again. There are prostitutes on Rundberg Avenue who will go to heaven before you will. Prostitutes who have kept their money down their shirts will be in heaven before you who have been dutifully placing it in an offering plate. Prostitutes who have spent their nights in bedrooms will be in heaven before you who have spent your mornings in church. Prostitutes who were at home in sleazy barrooms will be in heaven before you who are at home in sacred churches.
That smarts, doesn't it? But by the end of this sermon the fact that there are prostitutes in paradise will bring you great joy. In fact I'll go one better; if you're not overjoyed at prostitutes in paradise, if you're outraged that I have said such a thing from the pulpit, then you're the chief priests and Pharisees who crucified Christ.
Oops went a little too far, did I? Well what was the big difference between the pastors and the church members of those days, and the tax collectors and the prostitutes? The chief priests and Pharisees thought the difference was those prostitutes are adulterers, fornicators, and perverts. We aren't those things, so we're going heaven and they're not.
Is this where you are? Do you believe the way of righteousness, the way to heaven is a certain way of behaving? If you behave this way, if you do what's right and don't do what's wrong you're going to heaven. This is not the way to heaven; this is the way to hell. And God in His mercy sent John the Baptizer to the chief priests and the Pharisees to tell them that, and He sent me to tell you.
Jesus said John came to show the way of righteousness to them. What did John preach? Do this; don't do that. No John came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." John came preaching repentance and forgiveness. Listen carefully and tie it back into the parable yourself: John came preaching that God's will was for people to repent and believe the Gospel. But the pastors and the church members of those days said, "No, I don't want to." What did they have to repent of? They weren't walking the street selling their bodies; they weren't cheating people under the guise of tax collecting. No, they were praying, worshiping and giving to the church. What did they have to repent of?
What about the prostitutes and the tax collectors? When they heard John preaching "repent!" they shook in their tight fitting shorts and trembled in their fine sandals. "Look what I've done! See how I've sinned against God and man! John is right; I deserve to be damned. I deserve to be thrown into the Lake of Fire to burn forever. There is not one good thing about me anywhere; there is not one tiny part of my body, soul, or personality that is clean before the holy God."
The prostitutes and the tax collectors didn't just believe the Law; they believed the Gospel John preached too. They believed him when he said, "Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins." They believed when he said the muddy, stinking waters of the Jordan could wash their sins away. They believed that the ordinary looking waters really had God's power to cleanse their dirty sinfulness just because God said so. And so they were cleansed, forgiven, redeemed, restored, and brought into the kingdom of God.
Hallelujah! There are prostitutes in paradise! Hallelujah! even someone as lost, perverted, and as grossly sinful as a prostitute can be forgiven and saved. And the pastors and church members of those days saw it happen. They saw tax collectors Mat and Zac; the sinful woman in Luke 7, the one caught in adultery, and others: repentant, forgiven, changed, different. But this did not affect them one bit Jesus says. "Even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe John."
The word translated "repent" in the last verse of our text is not the usual one for repent. It's the same one translated "changed his mind" in the parable. It means to have an after thought, to think again about something. The first child in the parable who said, "No! I don't want to," ended up thinking again about the will of His father and went and did it. He thought again even though absolutely nothing happened to make him think again.
But what about the chief priests and the Pharisees? After they said, "No! I don't want to" to John=s call to repent and believe, they had no after thoughts even though they had every reason to have them. Even though they saw the wonderful change that came over prostitutes and tax collectors as a result of entering into the kingdom of God, they had no change of mind, no after thought even, about their rejection of repentance and forgiveness.
How about us? The whole point of the passage is that Jesus reaches out one more time. Notice He says, "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." He doesn't say instead of you. It's not too late for them. The others are just ahead of them. They can still come in behind them. And so can we; because there are prostitutes in paradise.
If the blood of Jesus Christ is able to cleanse them of their sins, then thanks be to God it is thick enough and rich enough to cleanse those who look at prostitutes or even those who have been with them. If there's no condemnation in Christ to them who have lived such perverted, debased lives, then there is no condemnation in Christ to us who have perverted and debased our lives in so many ways. If the waters of Baptism are able to wash, clean, forgive, and change those who have spent their lives outside of the church, then most certainly these precious waters can wash, clean, forgive, and change those of us inside of her. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20111023); Matthew 21: 28-32