Even in refusing to answer the religious leader’s question about his authority Jesus does not let up on them. Surrounded by listeners and a few of the religious elite he embarks on teaching three parables, short stories that teach a spiritual lesson, which will raise the temperature in the room, as the Pharisees got hot under the collar. Starting with a tale of two children, followed by the murderous vineyard workers and reaching a crescendo as wedding invitations were refused in a callous deadly way. Each story from Jesus in turn, not only shakes the foundation of the law experts’ understanding of God’s Kingdom but deconstructs it piece by piece.
Jesus uses the story of the reaction of two children to their fathers’ request. He sets it in a vineyard but, as I read the parable I can’t help think of my own requests to my children to simply go and clean their bedroom. Of course, the answer was ‘yes sir I go’ but somehow like the second child in the story they got waylaid along the way and the bedroom maintained the resemblance of a rubbish tip. The issue was that people who initially seemed disobedient repented and believed, while those who claimed to obedience really did not obey.
Like so many of Jesus parables, he poses a question of the listeners at the end. Which of the two did the will of his father? The first who said no but then changed their mind and went to the vineyard? Or the second who said yes but was missing in action? Easy, I can hear the religious leaders as they jumped in with both feet, the first!
Then Jesus stuns them with his application. They were the children who said yes but then opted out. And to drive his point home then he reveals to them who the first children were. “Truly, I say to you the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
In 21st century culture, the idea of tax collectors in the Kingdom of God does not create much of a stir. Many of us complain about the amount of tax we pay but probably blame the present chancellor or government rather than someone working at the Inland Revenue. But in 1st century Palestine it is hard to imagine the hatred and disdain these ‘farmers of public revenue’ were held.
Pharisees were highly respected but attitudes to tax collectors were at the total opposite extreme. Tax collectors bid for and purchased the right to collect taxes for a region. The tax burden was wide including Poll tax, land tax, tolls on travel and transporting goods, sales taxes and inheritance taxes. If a collector raised monies above this it was classed as sheer profit. Tax collectors were considered traitors, as they worked for occupying force whilst extorting money from their fellow countrymen. They were notorious for dishonesty and, in the Mishnah are classified with murderers and robbers, as people to whom one didn’t have to tell the truth.
We have to grasp how surprising and stunning it was for Jesus’ hearers, especially for the religious elite, to hear that Tax Collectors were, not only welcome in God’s Kingdom, but they entered first. I can’t help but imagine as I think about this scene, on the one hand, the contorted faces with a mixture of shock and anger of the religious leaders, and the smile of contented gratitude that spread across one of Jesus disciples as the weight of this story hit the air. After all, our writer and narrator to this scene is none other than Matthew whose occupation before Jesus stepped into his life was, yes you have guessed it, a Tax Collector!
Lord, I thank you that I am welcome in your kingdom. Not through anything I have done but through your life of obedience to the Father and your willingness to take my place as a sacrifice for my sin. Thank you that not only has my sin been dealt with but your righteousness, your obedience, has become mine. Help me to continually have a clearer understanding of your kingdom and its culture.
More From This Series
View the other Devotionals in our “For the Joy” series