“Faith is Louder than Words”
Text: Matthew 21: 23-32
Prayer: O Lord, we are fed by your love and nourished by your grace. And your words speak life to ours’. Open our hearts now to the message of this text that we may receive it with joy. Amen.
There is a wonderful old corny story about a group of military leaders who succeeded in building a super computer that was able to solve any problem large or small, strategic or tactical. These military leaders assembled in front of the new machine for a demonstration. The engineer conducting the demonstration instructed these officers to feed a difficult tactical problem into it. The military leaders proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat? This enormous super computer hummed away for an hour and then printed out its one‑word answer . . . YES.
The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT? Instantly the computer responded: YES, SIR.
The Pharisees, like these generals, were accustomed to people saying “Yes, sir” to them. They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated as such. But there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority. The Pharisees were alarmed. They feared Jesus’ popularity, his ability to heal and to perform miracles. In their eyes, Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined the Jews. The Pharisees wanted to expose him as a fraud.
It was in this context that Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”
The boy immediately said, “No.” Later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing.
This one answered, “O.K.” but he never got out to the vineyard. Then Jesus asked a simple question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Then Jesus delivered the punch line, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.” (NIV)
That really was a punch line, and the Pharisees were the ones who were punched. I imagine Jesus heard some gasps and “How dare he!” from the crowd that day. It was unthinkable to compare the righteous Pharisees to blatant sinners like the tax‑collectors and prostitutes. Didn’t he know that the Pharisees were too good to be lumped together with the likes of them? Didn’t he know that only those people with the right “credentials,” so to speak, would make it into the Kingdom of God?
What was Jesus talking about and why was he excoriating the best people in town?
There is an old Japanese legend that tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful full of lush gardens and glittering mansions. But then the man came to a room lined with shelves. On the shelves were stacked piles of human ears! A heavenly guide explained that these ears belonged to all the people on earth who listened each week to the word of God, but never acted on God’s teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. When these people died, therefore, only their ears ended up in heaven.
Jesus is dealing with a bunch of “earless” religious folk in this passage, and it would be to our benefit to listen in on the conversation. It’s so easy to mistake self‑righteous attitudes for true belief in Jesus as Savior. Any one of us can be guilty of it. This passage packs a powerful message.
I. God’s Grace is Shocking.
Imagine splashing hot pink paint over a black‑and‑white picture. Imagine tearing open the windows of a darkened room and letting the sun blaze through. Now imagine showing people a whole new view of God that breaks down the boundaries of everything they think to be true. Jesus is talking about what types of people are acceptable to stand before a holy, holy, holy God. And he passes over the religious professionals in favor of the worst of sinners. Has he lost his mind? Or could it be that self‑righteousness doesn’t earn us many points with God? Maybe God isn’t a Cosmic Scorekeeper, tallying up our moral hits and misses. Maybe we don’t have to earn God’s love. Because maybe God loves us even when we fail.
These sound like simplistic ideas, but to those who cling to self‑righteousness, thinking, “I’m good enough. I don’t need God’s forgiveness;” they are enough to shake us down to our very soul. God’s arms are open to everyone, from every race and nation and tribe and tongue, from every walk of life, from every circumstance. We’re really missing something extraordinary when we put boundaries on God’s grace.
One man tells about his daughter, Danae. Danae was an attractive baby and toddler. Dobson noted that people paid special attention to her, gave her candy, oohed and ahhed over her, mainly because she was so cute. But when Danae was fifteen months old, she fell and injured her mouth. Suddenly, her mouth took on a lopsided shape that considerably altered her appearance. Overnight, the world seemed to treat Danae differently. Strangers no longer oohed and ahhed over her. They stopped making a fuss over her. Admiring glances changed to awkward stares. Danae had not changed in the least. She was still a vivacious, smart, loving toddler. But the community no longer embraced and encouraged her because of her outward appearance.
In the Pharisees minds, God only had regard for that which was perfect, unblemished, without defect. They had reduced God to the level of human beings who turn their back on a little girl because of a crooked mouth. The Pharisees had no concept of God’s grace God’s love for all God’s children, even those who were who were caught in destructive lifestyles.
Bonnie St. John Deane in her book, “Succeeding Sane,” tells about the movie, Hoop Dreams, a true story. For four years a documentary film team takes cameras and follows the lives of two talented young basketball players from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago.
The young man with more natural talent gets a high school scholarship, a posh summer job, and a coach from hell. However, the constant badgering, pressure, and demeaning style of the coach slowly destroys any fun the kid ever felt in the game. Once the desire to play begins to crumble, he begins to sabotage his own success. He becomes more vulnerable to injuries, his grades drop, and he acts up socially with drugs and sex. His cry for help goes unheard.
Meanwhile, the kid with less talent gets less help and less pressure. He is left to struggle in worse schools combating pressure from gangs. He has to want to play or it isn’t going to happen. Despite his father being jailed for drugs and his mother being on and off welfare, he works to stay in school, to stay on the team.
Finally he wins a college scholarship and goes on to play ball better than ever. By the end of the story, it is clear that he is a happier, healthier person more likely to be successful with or without basketball.
The Pharisees were like the demanding coach badgering, pressuring, demeaning. They wanted perfection. Jesus knew that is not the way to bring hurting people into the kingdom of God. He did it with love and acceptance. He did it by living out God’s amazing, startling, absurd grace.
II. This Is How We Are to Live Our Lives.
We are to be grace‑filled. We are to reach out to little girls with crooked smiles and old people with trembling hands. We are to value all people as worthy of acceptance, and we are to introduce them to the One who died in their behalf, and in our behalf.
Millions of people around the world have been inspired by Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ.
Maxine Raines, director of a ministry to the homeless in Knoxville, Tennessee, knew her homeless friends couldn’t afford to buy a movie ticket. So she brought the movie theater to them. With the support of her church and private donors, Raines erected an outdoor theater under a downtown bridge where homeless people like to congregate. Then she showed the film to a group of more than 400 street people.
Many were moved to tears; dozens prayed to receive Christ that night. Raines’ commented, “I want them to be able to see that somebody cared enough for them to give His life for them . . . They tell me they are hopeless, nobody can help and I say to them, ‘I know One who can.'”
Nobody is hopeless. Nobody is beyond help. Why? Because there is ONE with nails in his hands who says, “You’re so important I gave my life for you.” “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.’ ”
Maxine Raines took the kingdom of God to a group of people who are usually overlooked, discounted, and left out. And many of them responded with repentance and faith. No one is left out of God’s grace.
III. No One Is Excluded from the Kingdom of God, Not Even a Pharisee.
He said that the tax collectors and the prostitutes would enter the kingdom before they did. The tax collectors and the prostitutes didn’t carry the baggage of religiosity. All they knew is that they were forgiven and accepted by God. Jesus simply widened the boundaries of the kingdom. Of course, the Pharisees were part of it, but so were the people that the Pharisees would never accept as equals. The Pharisees wanted a kingdom that was reserved for themselves and their kind. Jesus wanted a kingdom that was big enough for everybody.
In 1962, James Meredith made civil rights history as the first Black student ever to enroll at the University of Mississippi. This simple act inspired vicious race riots in the surrounding town, but Meredith didn’t let it intimidate him. Four years later, in a bid to inspire Black citizens in the South to vote, James Meredith planned a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. He carried nothing but a walking stick and a Bible. The 220‑mile walk was an effort to show that a Black man could walk freely through the South. As Meredith commented, “I was at war against fear.”
On the second day of his walk, however, James Meredith was ambushed by Aubrey James Norville, a Memphis hardware clerk. Norville shot him four times and left him to die in the middle of the road. Incredibly, Meredith survived the shooting.
And then a remarkable thing happened. As he recuperated in the hospital, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people gathered to continue his walk from Memphis to Jackson.
On the last day, a recovered James Meredith accompanied by 12,000 marchers entered Mississippi’s state capitol.
I believe that is what the kingdom of God will be like. One man was slain on a cross. And that started a parade. At first only a few were brave enough to join it, but that few grew to hundreds, then thousands, then millions. Among these people are a few righteous souls. But these few righteous are out numbered by the thousands, no, millions of persons, who have not been all they might have been, or should have been, but they’ve been healed by the forgiving love of their Master.
The kingdom of God has come that was the central message of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The kingdom of God is marching forward, and nothing can stop its forward momentum, nothing can prevail against it, not even the gates of Hell. And you have a front‑row invitation to be a part of it. This is the greatness of God’s grace: salvation cannot be earned, it is a free gift of love offered to all who will accept it. Don’t let your goodness get in the way of Jesus’ righteousness. Don’t let your sanctity overshadow Jesus’ sacrifice.
Believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and claim your place in the Kingdom of God today with the millions who are gathered at the Lord’s table from every walk of life and every country on the globe. Amen.
Prayer: O Lord, help us to see that we don’t have to earn our way, we don’t have work to receive you acceptance. You already embrace us and welcome us and call us your child. Help us to accept the free grace that you offer in Christ. And may we open our hearts and arms to others as wide as you open them to us. For we come as sisters and brothers all. Amen.