The Righteousness of Prostitutes

25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

Matthew 21:25-27

The pharisees weren’t determining an answer based on what is true. They were determining an answer based on what would further their interests. This may seem obvious, but we all do this. When people don’t want to believe in Christ because they are afraid of the moral pressure such a decision would bring – in other words, they want to be able to have sexual and moral freedom to “party” instead of following Christ – they commit this same error. They protest the truth of the faith with words about obscure problems in the Old Testament, and some of those concerns are real. But really, they don’t want God to rain on their party. When we are unclear about the grace inherent in the gospel, we feed these fears and lead them to reject Christ.

This was their central problem: their self-idolatry and their severe self-interest blinded them to truth.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

Matthew 20:28-32

Jesus is such a trash talker! This comes across to me like Richard Sherman talking if Richard Sherman could also speak in parables on a whim. Jesus simply did not mince words with these guys! I’ve always loved this.

This is exactly how behavioral righteousness works under the gospel. People think the basis of the gospel is moral pressure because it is written that it many times results in righteous behavior. However, the basis of the gospel has nothing to do with this. Under the law, one proclaims fealty and pretends obedience and yet doesn’t do it. They look at those under grace and say they preach license to sin, while their own proclamations of obedience are all pretense and sham. They accuse the grace/gospel preacher of antinomianism while being white-washed tombs and lying vipers themselves. They are the second son, who said “I will” but did not. In context, Jesus is directly talking about the pharisees, whom we identify with the modern day Christian moralists. Under grace, we truthfully say, “I will not!” We mean it too – we’re not promising to avoid obedience, we’re predicting a likely outcome! When we end up actually obeying and doing the thing that was asked of us, we are as shocked as anyone that we did! This is how behavioral righteousness works under grace! The sinners who are frank about their sins are the favored ones! How could that possibly work? It works the way Jesus said it would! And, it does work. So, the demand of the law remains the same, but grace works through love and acceptance to cause us to embrace the task while the law works to cause us to despise the task.

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  1. Nice post, Jim!

    And such a tragic paradox, isn’t it, that the passage is often taught as a “don’t just say you will obey, but do obey!” And with that they separate out works from the only thing that counts, believing in Jesus.

    The real context, as you bring out, is that Jesus turns it upside down, proclaiming that the moral failures were getting in… because of faith.


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