Sermon: Stories, Actions Speak Louder


“Stories: Actions Speak Louder”
Matthew 21:28-44

Parable of the Two Sons

28 “But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32 For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.

Parable of the Evil Farmers

33 “Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. 34 At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. 35 But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.

37 “Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ 39 So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”

41 The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”

42 Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures?

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is wonderful to see.’

43 I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. 44 Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”


I. Introduction

Sarah and I met in college, when we were both very young (she was 18 and I was 21). As I think I’ve mentioned before, I had been working for an astrophysicist (that’s a rocket scientist) writing software to control the hardware systems we used to conduct research on objects in space. That all sounds really impressive, I’m sure. After I had been there a little less than a year, we hired Sarah to work as assistant to the professor in charge and to write grant proposals. We became quick friends, and both share a storehouse of funny stories we could tell about our coworkers there. They were an interesting bunch.

I sort of fell into my role there, when the professor, who also taught physics, discovered I had written programs for my graphing calculator to automatically solve all of the advanced equations we were learning in class. Not only did he allow me to use those programs on my tests, ensuring that I got a great grade, but he also offered me a job. And during my time there, he continued to challenge me with unusual problems to solve, and entrusted me with responsibilities that would ultimately influence the outcomes of many research projects.

Just having the opportunity to work on such creative pursuits and get paid for it was thanks enough. But one year, our boss surprised us with an incredible gift to express his thanks for our work. He submitted mine and Sarah’s names to the National Science Foundation for an award that recognizes the contributions of students to science. That spring, we each received the NSF Student Fellowship Award, which is something I will always treasure.

But there was one slight problem with the award process. You see, our boss told us that there was a special dinner coming up to which we were invited. He asked each of us to attend, made sure we were aware of the dress code, and then even reminded us about it later. But he didn’t tell us that the whole purpose of the dinner was to give us the awards. I told him that I would be there, thinking it was just a regular dinner–and then I promptly forgot about it.

The day of the awards dinner came and went, and I never once thought about it. Needless to say, my boss wasn’t too pleased when I didn’t show. He had wanted to bless me with something special, but I hadn’t followed through on my commitment to be present that day, and as a consequence, neither one of us enjoyed the event in the way that he had intended.


II. We are all guilty of paying lip service to our commitments

My guess is that all of us have at one time or another made a commitment to something and then failed to follow through on it. It may have been an unintentional oversight–maybe we were overly committed and simply forgot–or it may have been intentional, and we had no intention of following through from the beginning. Accidentally failing to follow through on most commitments will have little long-term effect on our lives, though there certainly are exceptions. The fact of the matter is that our society is so busy, that it is common for people to miss things. Other than a brief sense of mild annoyance, most of us probably don’t get too concerned when someone else doesn’t show up, and we expect others to forgive us quickly when the fault is ours–at least when we have a good excuse.

But committing to something and then intentionally choosing not to follow through can have more significant consequences, particularly from a spiritual standpoint. At the very least, it calls our integrity into question. We are told in the Bible that we should let our yes be yes and let our no be know. We are to neither swear by things that we had no hand in creating, nor should we work to explain our every answer. And Christians, above all others, should keep their word, so far as it is in our power to do so. We may fear the repercussions of saying no to someone, but any outcome we are likely to face is far better than breaching our own integrity.

When we knowingly agree to something, but have no intention of following through, it is called “paying lip service” to that commitment. When we become comfortable with paying lip service to things that are seemingly inconsequential, it becomes easier to do so with things of eternal significance as well. If we continue to willingly dabble in attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to God’s best for us, they have a way of dragging us on into deeper levels of disobedience.

In truth, we are all guilty of paying lip service to the demands of the gospel, at times. We do this when we declare on Sunday morning that we are followers of Jesus, but stop short of full commitment and obedience on Monday through Saturday, or when the path God is leading us down becomes uncomfortable or violates our personal preferences. We do this when we claim that Jesus is Lord in our lives, but then refuse to give him control over our decisions and actions. We do this when we put on the outward trappings of faithfulness, but don’t allow God to transform our hearts.


III. Actions speak louder than words

At the beginning of Matthew 21, we read about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and find out that he encountered a lot of people with a half-hearted commitment to following God. We learn from the Gospel of John that Jesus had been performing many public miracles, and the people were starting to believe that he could be the promised Messiah. This made the religious leaders nervous, because they couldn’t control Jesus and he was challenging their authority with the people. When he raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, before returning to Jerusalem, it sealed the deal for many of the people who had been watching him. He must be God’s chosen one, they thought. So, it is no surprise that the people welcomed him to the city like a king. But we find out later that the crowds were paying lip service to any commitment to Jesus, and they all deserted him, when he was arrested later in the week.

Next, Jesus went into the Temple courts and drove out the vendors and money changers who were taking advantage of people who had come there to offer sacrifices as the Law demanded. They had taken something central to the worship of holy God, and turned it into a means for gaining profit. After clearing the Temple, Jesus began to perform many miracles in the sight of all the people there. But the religious leaders were more concerned with the children shouting praise to his name than they were with the manifest presence of God’s power. It seems that, even in the Temple, people were claiming to follow God, without letting him transform their hearts.

Later that evening, Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany where they were staying for the night, and when they returned to Jerusalem the next morning, Jesus spotted a fig tree and went over to it to see if it had any fruit that he could eat. This is one of the few times when we see Jesus’ frustration with Israel bubble to the surface, and you can tell that he was still thinking about the events of the previous day. When he found that the fig tree was empty, he cursed it and caused its branches to wither. When asked about it he talked to the disciples about the power of faithful prayer to produce any result, but the deeper meaning behind this passage compares the fig tree to the religious leaders at the Temple. Neither bore fruit, so both were doomed to wither and die.

As if to drive the point home, when Jesus returned to the Temple to teach that day, he was confronted once again by the religious leaders, who had heard his words and witnessed his miracles over and over again. Though they claimed to be followers of God, devoted to his commandments, they could not see him clearly standing there before him. So, they questioned Jesus, asking him by what authority he was saying and doing all these things. But, instead of answering their questions directly, Jesus told them two interconnected parables.


Parable 1 – Actions speak louder than words [Read Matthew 21:28-32]

This first parable talks about what it means to pay lip service to our commitment to God. But before we talk about, there is something important we should note. Jesus wasn’t directing this story at people in general; it was intended for God’s people specifically. He talked about the relationship between a father and his sons, which is a relationship reserved for those who belong to God. This relationship belongs to all those who have been adopted as daughters and sons of God through faith in Jesus. So, although Jesus was directing this parable at the religious leaders of his day, it now properly applies to those of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In other words, his words are directed at the church. And that is important for us to understand going forward.

In the story, the farmer’s oldest son is at first disobedient. When his father said to go and work in the fields, he simply refused, choosing to follow his own desires. But before the day was out he had a change of heart, and chose to become obedient to his father’s commands. He went into the field and worked as he had been instructed. The first son represents those who were once living far apart from God’s kingdom, but who had allowed the good news to transform them into followers of Jesus. They rejected God at the beginning, choosing to live in sin, but when they encountered John the Baptist (and then Jesus) they received their words as true and began walking in obedience.

The second son in the story had all the appearance of an obedient son on the surface. When his father came to him and instructed him to work in the fields, he immediately committed to doing his father’s will. But he was only paying lip service to that commitment. Though he appeared to be obedient, he never actually did what his father commanded. This second son represented the chief priests and Pharisees, who had all the outward trappings of faithfulness, but whose hearts were hardened. They spoke often of doing God’s will, enforcing it on others and condemning those who strayed, but inside they were wasting away, because they had never developed a love for God or the people under their care. They had not repented of their own sins, even though they readily pointed out the sins of others. And while they claimed to be God’s willing servants, they weren’t truly following his will.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself which son you most resemble in this story? Have you wondered if you would be considered an obedient child in this scenario? The truth is that we all start out in the same place. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of righteousness. In the beginning, we are all like the first son. Our father has told us what he expects of us, but we have rejected his word. So, if we all start out in the same place, what determines which son we become in the story?

If you are a follower of Jesus this morning, then at some point you have changed your mind. You have turned away from a life of disobedience and chosen to believe that God’s ways are higher than your ways. You have received his free gift of grace for yourself and are no longer bound by guilt and sin. You have entered into a relationship with God as his child, and you can now call him Father. What separates the first son in the story from the second isn’t belief. Both sons knew their father and heard his voice. The difference between them is that the first son ultimately followed his father’s instructions, while the second son did not. The difference was not in their belief; the difference was what that belief produced in them. The first son was faithful, but the second son was unfaithful.

Jesus went on to tell a second parable, which illustrated the consequences of becoming like the second son.


Parable 2 – The result of unfaithfulness [Read Matthew 21:33-44]

This parable was an indictment of the religious leaders of Israel, who had been given the blessing and responsibility of caring for the souls of his flock, but who had time and again abused and even killed God’s messengers. They had grown hungry for power and influence to the point that any expression of God’s wisdom and power that didn’t originate with them was seen as threatening. And the implications for this are brutal and clear, as Jesus used the parable to predict what these same leaders would soon do to him, the Landowner’s Son.

His warning to them at the end of the story was clear. If God’s people are unfaithful with what he has given them, and continue down the road of disobedience–if they continue to pay lip service to their faith–his kingdom will depart from them, and he will give it to someone else, who will produce the proper fruit.


IV. Application

What does this mean for us today? Friends, though Jesus directed these parables to the religious leaders of his day, we would do well to hear them as a warning to the church in our day. Through Jesus Christ, we are now the spiritual Israel, God’s chosen people, and we have been given the responsibility and privilege to produce fruit according to the riches of the gospel. But make no mistake, we are not simply invited to bear fruit, we are commanded to do so. Where we do not, we have ceased to be the obedient church, and have instead become like the second son, who proclaimed his commitment to the father’s will, without any intention of doing it.

Following Jesus is not a spectator sport. It is not enough to come to church on Sunday and learn about him. It is not enough even to believe what the Bible says about him. True faith, genuine belief, requires more of us than just knowing about Jesus; it requires a relationship with him that is founded upon a deep and abiding trust and confidence in him as our Lord and Savior. And that kind of faith doesn’t exist without the accompanying obedience to his commands. “If you love me,” Jesus said. “Then keep my commandments.” If we would become faithful sons and daughters of the King, Christ calls us to radical obedience to his commands to love God and love one another. We do this by actively obeying all of his instructions in scripture, and by confronting the wickedness of this present age with the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross to set people free from the guilt and bondage of sin, and was raised again in victory over death.

Like all of you, I have watched the church in America lose its witness to our culture. We have become far too adept at pointing out the sins of those who are living far apart from God and need him desperately, and far too hesitant to repent of our own sin. We have grown silent in the face of growing evil of every kind, when God has called us to proclaim his justice and mercy loudly on the streets. Frankly, I think the church became comfortable with its influence in our society at one time, and we have been struggling ever since to hold on to that power, through compromise.

This same compromise is present in our individual lives, as well, when we choose to follow the wisdom of the world and reject the clear and life-altering wisdom of scripture. We have allowed ourselves to become people who go to church, when Jesus Christ has called us to be the church. Obedience is an active pursuit, but we have too often become passive in our faith. And as a result, we are no longer bearing the proper fruit.

This hit home for me personally in the last week as God has convicted me of remaining silent for far too long about issues of extreme importance that we face as a church and as a nation. I have failed to talk publicly with you about the human rights atrocity we know as abortion. I haven’t talked about it, because, frankly, I get too emotional. I get physically ill, when I think about what our culture is doing to the most vulnerable in our society in the name of convenience and freedom of personal choice. News headlines this week have been particularly difficult to read and talk about, but God calls us to embody a faith that doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. We have been set free from sin and fear through Jesus Christ, and we are called now to proclaim the good news with confidence and power in the very face of evil of every kind. And this is just one of many areas where I have been silent, and the church has been silent with me.

I believe that God is calling the church in our country to repentance and belief, and that he will use the challenges of our time to strengthen the true church, and to prune her branches, so that we might begin to once again produce a fruitful harvest of saints in the church, who willingly lay down their lives for the sake of the world. But the only way this will ever happen is if we fall on our knees in prayer.

Last week we talked about praying like it matters. If you remember, we committed together to begin praying with more frequency, more focus, and more faith that God is powerful enough to answer our prayers and loves us enough to do so. If we want to become truly faithful in our obedience to God, I believe we have to begin with prayer. First and foremost, we should be praying for God to send his Spirit upon us as individuals and as a church, to convict us and to empower us for mission and ministry to our community.

But I don’t think it stops there. Friends, I believe it is time for each of us to take a more active role in following Jesus. Now, I’m not saying that we aren’t following him at all. I know that many of you are seeking daily to become more like him. I’m only suggesting that, if we are comfortable with our lives as they are, then we aren’t yet following him fully. He will always lead us out of our comfort zones and into places where we have no choice but to become completely dependent upon him. And only when we commit to following him into those unknown places will we ever receive the richest blessings that he wants to give us.

I believe that God has more planned for each one of us than we can possibly imagine. He wants to make us holy and loving and compassionate. He wants us to live lives that are so different from the world that people can’t help but want what we have. He wants us to produce a harvest of righteousness, both in our own lives and in the lives of those we meet, as we introduce them to Jesus, and invite them into the family. And it all starts when we invite Jesus to completely wreck our lives.

Are you ready to take the next step in your journey with Jesus? Are you ready to surrender that thing you have been holding onto so tightly? Are you ready to ask God to make you fully obedient to his word? Are you ready to see the unknown places that Jesus will lead you, if you let him? Are you ready to trust him fully and completely with your worries, your relationships, your finances, your health, or whatever it is that you have been afraid to let go of? If so, I want to invite you to pray this prayer with me.


V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross for our disobedience. We confess that, even though you have offered us freedom from sin, we don’t always follow your commands. Father, we repent of our unfaithfulness as individuals and as a church, and we ask that you would send your Spirit on us now to cleanse us from any sin that remains in us, and make us holy as you are holy.

And Father, we are tired of treating our faith like a spectator sport. We are tired of paying lip service to our commitment to following you. So, we ask that you would transform our hearts this morning. Would you set them on fire with your love? Would you teach us how to become a people of prayer? Would you show us how to reach our community with the good news? And would you give us the courage and the strength to act in the face of great evil, to proclaim your kingdom come?

Thank you, Jesus, for your faithfulness. Thank you for your church. Thank you for all the saints who have believed you and proved it with their lives. Thank you, that you are making all things new. Thanks you for rescuing us. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for leading us. We love you, Jesus! And we commit our lives to you from this day forward. Amen.


Isaac Hopper

Isaac Hopper (PhD, Manchester) is a United Methodist Pastor serving churches in the Indiana Conference. He writes publicly about Christian discipleship, faith, and living the called life. He also writes academically about Wesleyan theology and practice.