Immediate Obedience

Matthew 21:28-32

June 21, 2009 | Brian Bill

A father wrote about what happened when his son David was about five-years-old.  They attended a church where it was common for the preacher to invite children to the front for a special sermon.  On one particular morning, he brought up a smoke detector and asked the children if anyone knew what it meant when the alarm went off.  David immediately raised his hand and said, “It means Daddy’s cooking dinner.”

Dads are often dissed, aren’t they?

That reminds me of a conversation that took place in another family.  The children begged for a hamster; and after the usual promises that they alone would care for it, they got one and named it Danny.  Two months later, when Mom realized that she was the only one cleaning up after him and doing all the feeding, she found a new home for it.

The children took the news of Danny’s imminent departure quite well, though the daughter lamented, “He’s been around here a long time.  We’ll miss him.”  “Yes,” Mom replied, “But he’s too much work for one person, and since I’m that one person, I say he goes.”

Her young son offered an idea, “Well, maybe if he wouldn’t eat so much and not be so messy, we could keep him.”  But Mom was firm. “It’s time to take Danny to his new home now,” she insisted. “Go and get his cage.”  With tears in their eyes, the children shouted in unison: “Danny?!  We thought you said Daddy!”  (

Dads are not only dissed, they’re sometimes dismissed.

This week I stopped by the post office to buy some stamps.  When I told the worker how many I wanted, he held up a sheet that featured “The Simpson’s.”  I asked if he had anything else.  He then pulled out some American Flags and said, “No one really wants the Simpson stamps.”  I told him that I already struggle to be a good father and I certainly don’t want Homer to be my hero because he’s depicted as out-of-touch, his parenting skills leave a lot to be desired, and his children talk back to him all the time.  Using sarcastic sparring, Bart makes it loud and clear that he doesn’t need to listen to his dad.

Dads are not only dissed and dismissed; they’re often disrespected as well.

As we continue in our summer series called, “Practical Parables,” we’re leaning that these stories from the Savior not only teach; they also expose our hearts.  This morning we’re going to listen in to a conversation between a dad and his two sons.  This dad is dissed, dismissed and disrespected as well.  Please turn to Matthew 21:28:32: “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.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.  He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. ‘Which of the two did what his father wanted?’  ‘The first,’ they answered.  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.’”

This parable is not nearly as well-known as the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan but it packs a punch.  It’s short and relatively easy to understand.  Before we jump in, let’s put this text in context.  It’s now the last week of Jesus’ life and the religious authorities are having a final face-off with Jesus.  In particular, they are challenging His authority.  

Putting the Text in Context

Matthew 21 begins with Jesus making His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In verses 12-17, He clears out the money changers.  Verse 15 tells us that the chief priests and teachers of the law become indignant when they see the wonderful things that Jesus did “and the children shouting in the temple area, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’”  The next morning Jesus curses the fig tree and then enters the temple again.  While He’s teaching, the religious leaders challenge Him by asking where His authority comes from.  As Jesus often does, He instead asks them a question in verse 25: “John’s baptism—where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?”  They’re afraid to give an answer so they respond by saying, “We don’t know.”  Jesus then says, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  

Verse 28, which introduces our parable for today, begins with another question directed to these religious leaders: “What do you think?”  Let’s look closely at this story to discover that what we do is more important than what we say we will do.  


1. The first son.

The father has some work that he needs done so he goes to the first son and says, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”  I’m struck by the tenderness of the father as he calls his boy, “Son.”  The father loves his boy and uses an intimate term of endearment that reveals his desire for a close relationship.  This command carries with it both authority and affection.  He is not a tyrant but tells him to “go and work.”  This is a reasonable request because there is work to be done and a child needs to learn how to labor.  And it’s urgent – go and work “today.”  Notice that the first son answers abruptly and abrasively, “I will not.”  The Greek is actually stronger: “No, I will not!”  This is similar to the attitude of the people in Jeremiah 44:16: “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord!”

His change of mind led to a change in his manner

After thinking about it for awhile, he changes his mind, and heads out to the vineyard.  His change of mind led to a change in his manner.  Perhaps he regretted his bad attitude.  Maybe the father’s tender love broke through his hard heart.  We don’t really know what happened but we do know that he went and worked.

2. The second son. 

The second son is given the same command but instead of responding disrespectfully, he replies: “I will, sir.”  On the surface this son is compliant but we quickly realize that he’s just saying what he thinks his dad wants to hear.  He had no intention of obeying: “But he did not go.”  Failing to go after promising to go was worse than not having promised because now he’s lied to his dad.  He called his dad, “sir” but was really a sluggard.  Looking good was more important than doing good.  He went back to playing his Wii instead of doing the Father’s will.  The first son said, “I will not” but did.  The second son said, “I will” but did not.

That reminds me of an illustration I heard some time ago.  Derrick was a strong-willed, rebellious third grader who was always getting in trouble with his teacher.  One day he could not stay in his seat and was constantly standing up and walking around.  After numerous warnings and threats, the teacher finally told him that if he didn’t sit down, he would not get to go to recess.  Derrick slumped into his seat.  The teacher walked over and said, “Thank you for listening to me and sitting down.”  Derrick replied, “I may be sitting on the outside, but I’m still standing on the inside.”

These two sons have different attitudes, different answers and different actions.  The first son, though initially strong-willed, went and worked.  He was rebellious but repented.  The second son talked a good game but stayed and laid around the house.  He talked the talk, but did not walk the walk.

Jesus then asked a question with an obvious answer: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”  I’m sure the religious guys didn’t really want to answer because they would be condemning themselves: “‘The first,’ they answered.”

The Point of the Parable

There are really two different groups represented by this parable.  Look at verse 31: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Some commentators translate the phrase “ahead of you” as “instead of, or in the place of you.” 

1. The rebellious who repent. 

According to the religious leaders tax collectors and prostitutes would have no part in the kingdom of God.  Jesus could not have chosen a much more offensive comparison by saying that they will pass the religious leaders on the highway to heaven. The tax collectors made a living by skimming off the top while prostitutes made a living off the bottom.  Both groups were not welcome by religious people. They were the lowest of the low.  

Aren’t you glad that no matter what you’ve done or how long you’ve done it, God’s grace is available to the worst of sinners?  Public sinners like tax collectors (Matthew and Zacchaeus) and prostitutes responded to Jesus throughout His ministry.   I love what Paul said about himself in 1 Timothy 1:15.  He had persecuted Christians and put them to death.  You’d think that might disqualify him but he writes these words: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.”

God uses the example of the most extreme sinner we can think of to show that His grace covers all our sins.  If you feel like a failure today because of poor choices and sinful actions, guess what?  You qualify for the kingdom!  If you’ve been going the wrong way for a long time it’s not too late to repent today!  God is a God of second chances and even though you didn’t start out with a love for Him, He will gladly accept your love now.

The Biblical Illustrator describes a man who at one time jumped with both feet on a Bible and started stomping the Scriptures into the ground.  A few weeks later, he held that very Bible in his lap reading with tearful eyes its glorious promises.  Another time three couples arrived late to a worship service and made sport of the singing by laughing, writing notes and making a commotion.  In the middle of the sermon, they bowed their heads.  At the close of the service, all six rose with tearful eyes, begging for the prayers of God’s people.

I love the grace that drips from Ezekiel 18:21-23: “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die.  None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him…Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” God loves to change sinners into saints.  After listing a bunch of sins, I love what 1 Corinthians 6:11: “And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

2. The religious who rebel. 

The first son rebelled initially but the second son’s response was empty.  What we do is more important than what we say we will do.  The religious know the right reply but their lives did not match up to their lips because their walk was not connected to their talk.  Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 15:8, which is really a quote from Isaiah 29:13, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  Jesus calls them out in Matthew 23:3: “…But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

The majority of Christians today know what to say but would rather play than pray; would rather get than give; would rather be entertained than exercise their gifts and would rather whine than work in the Father’s vineyard.  Friends, it’s not your religious reputation but your repentance that matters.  Pastor Bruce Goettsche asks some tough questions (

  • How many times have I sung words that speak of obedience and yet did nothing to act on that which I professed?
  • How many times have I promised to pray for someone but didn’t do it?
  • How many times have I asked God to lead me and ignored his leading?
  • How many times have I told the Lord that I would serve Him when times are tough only to forget Him when times are better?

Check out verse 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.”  The religious refused to believe John the Baptist and repent.  The rebellious on the other hand, did repent.  Jesus then points out that these religious guys should have been moved to action by watching the transformation that took place in the lives of the rebellious but they remained unrepentant: “And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

The Father’s Focus

Since today is Father’s Day, let’s focus on the father in this parable, who represents our Heavenly Father.  Here are some truths that come to mind.

1. The Father is fond of you. 

If you are a Christ-follower, He calls you “son” or “daughter.”  If you doubt God’s love for you, lock in to these words from Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” 

2. The Father’s will is that we work. 

There’s much to do in His vineyard and we don’t really have the option of opting out.  A Christian who is not serving is a contradiction in terms.  1 Peter 4:10: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”  By the way, we have some significant needs in the Nursery.

3. The Father expects immediate obedience. 

He wants us to work “today.”  Delayed obedience is really disobedience.  Hebrews 3:15: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  What we do is more important than what we say we will do.  Today is the day to say “yes” to the Father.  2 Corinthians 6:2: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  If you’re a believer and you’ve quit working, it’s time to get back to work! 

4. The Father is gracious when we don’t go. 

He loves to redeem failures.  2 Peter 3:9 says that He waits until we repent: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

5. The Father desires repentance more than self-righteous religious ritualism. 

1 Samuel 15:22: “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” There’s a difference between “wishing” and “willing.”  We can wish for change but until we’re willing to submit to the Father’s will; we won’t change.  What we do is more important than what we say we will do.  

Parenting Principles

Even though the main point of this parable has to do with our relationship with our Heavenly Father, we can also draw out some parenting principles from this story.  First Century parents were faced with some of the same things we are.  Fellow fathers, let’s put these principles into practice.

1. Talk tenderly to your children. 

The father uses the affectionate term “son” when he addresses his boys.  I grieve when I hear how some dads (and moms) talk to their kids.  Your daughter is not a “brat” or a “pain.”  Your son is not “worthless” or “stupid.”  Dads, we have a heavy responsibility to not do anything that would cause our children to despair.  Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

You are the God-ordained head of your home and are charged with bringing your kids up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

2. Lovingly lead your family. 

I recognize that many dads are delinquent in this area and that moms are filling in the gap but I want fathers everywhere to hear this: You are the God-ordained head of your home and are charged with bringing your kids up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

3. Raise your kids to work. 

The father in this story had every right to give work to his children.  We are a culture of laziness and entitlement where many feel like others owe them.  Chores are a good thing.  Lamentations 3:27: “It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.” 

Related to this, according to a report released this week, the Internet is robbing families of face time.  Researchers at the Center for the Digital Future at USC report the percentage of people who say they spend less time with household members since being connected to the Internet at home has nearly tripled, from 11 percent in 2006 to 28 percent in 2008.  Michael Gilbert, author of “The Disposable Male” and a senior fellow at the center, said diminishing family time coincides with the explosive growth of social networks (  Now, before you think I’m just taking a shot at young people, I probably have my face in Facebook too much.

4. Teach your children to respect those in authority. 

The second son addressed his dad with respect.  We need to help our children learn how to do this by having them use titles like “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” “Sir” and “M’am.”  A little “Please” and “Thank you” goes a long way as well.

5. Expect immediate obedience from your children. 

Too many of us dads are lax in this area.  Children have an obligation to obey and we must insist that they do so.  Ephesians 6:1-3: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’”  Beth and I first learned of the concept of “first-time obedience” when our girls were young.  We don’t count to three but instead expect obedience right away…and then enforce consequences when it doesn’t happen.

6. Don’t despair in the face of disobedience. 

Some of you have children who are rebelling and disobeying.  Hold on to hope and pray for your prodigal to return.  The first son was defiant but eventually came around.  The second son was compliant on the outside but strong-willed on the inside.  

While I didn’t always practice immediate obedience, I’m so thankful for everything my dad taught me growing up.  I watched him a lot and spent a lot of time following him around like I was his shadow.  Even now when I joke around I recognize that I’m a lot like my dad.  Earlier this week we stopped at DQ for a treat and when we were getting on our bikes, I saw two teenagers headed to the door.  I went up to both of them and said, “I’m sorry but they’re all out of ice cream.”  They looked sad for just a moment but when they saw me smile, they knew I was joking.  My dad does stuff like that all the time.  

Dads, you and I are being watched.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?