Matthew 21:23-46, Matthew 22:1-14.
If all things were not entirely out of course, if every principle of human nature were not astray from God, there would be no need on His part for all the painstaking of which we read in these chapters - no need for these varied and assiduous efforts to recall people to Himself, which result, after all, in a manner so strange, so sorrowful. We might have supposed, as we sometimes see in the self-willed child on hearing the father's voice of love and entreaty, that instant obedience would be the result of God's bringing to mind the relationship that exists. But no: these constant efforts, this "changing of the voice" (as Paul has it), serve but to show that all sense of relationship between man and God is gone. That voice touches no spring, there is not a chord upon which it can act - the echo of the heart is gone.
In these three parables the Lord recounts, in a very full and distinct manner, God's successive dealings with man, and their result. He brings before us what God has done in: righteousness - thereby placing man under responsibility, as well as what He has done in grace. The instruction is of the simplest and clearest kind, being addressed to the conscience of man just as he is.
We read "When He was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto Him as He was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?" (21:23.) God comes into the world to do good, and man demands. His authority! Jesus had previously been showing power in healing the blind and lame, and in cleansing the temple, but now He is quietly teaching there; and this entangling question is put by those who find their veil of hypocrisy drawn aside, their authority endangered, their unrighteous gains disturbed by that act wherewith Jesus sought to remove from God's house, the reproach of merchandise, and to restore its character as "the house of prayer. The Lord might have replied by appealing to His many miracles; but He has another object in view - "Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; He will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? (for John bore testimony to Jesus). But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet." That is, He at once, by means of the question which in divine wisdom He puts to them, brings out the real state of their conscience. The embarrassment into which they thought to throw Him falls on themselves. "They answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And He said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things."
Thus, at the very outset, the Lord puts this great truth before all: the conscience of man is bad in not submitting to, the righteousness of God. And such is the case always. Man cannot deny that things come from heaven; but he will not believe. He may bring forth his hard questions, like those of old, but with no real desire after the truth. That which his conscience cannot deny, he will neither allow nor act upon. If pressed to the utmost (look at the extreme case of infidelity), men love darkness rather than light, just as it is said: "Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind." (Rom. 1)
Having thus put to silence these men, the Lord now proceeds to depict their ways and thoughts in parables, which their conscience, already stirred, could not fail to interpret, even when an application was not directly made to them.
"But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of these twain did the will of his father! They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and, ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him."
In this first parable the Lord makes most apparent the difference between formal righteousness and self-will followed by repentance; between the person who goes through the world decently, desiring to make a fair show, and the one who, acting against all the dictates of natural conscience, sins deliberately, but afterward repents.
We see described in the second son the general character of "decent" people. They go on quietly and in outward order, professing to own the will of God, and to serve God they say, "I go, sir;" but after all, from morning to night, and from night to morning, they do their own will, and nothing else,
In the other son there is avowed determination to disobey; just, alas! the description of the thorough wilfulness of the human heart. With "I will not," he delights in breaking through all the righteousness of filial relationship; but withal he is conscious of the violation, and afterwards owns it with repentance.
There was no regard in the self-righteous Jew, notwithstanding all his profession, for the righteousness of God, of which John bare witness, and therefore he believed him not. But the publicans and harlots, who had no regard for the ordinances of God, or for the commonest morality, on hearing the testimony of John, believed and repented. The Pharisee made clean the outside; owned God in ordinances, but not in heart and conscience. These openly and outrageously sinned against God, but "repented and went." And their repentance was such as God owns: it consisted not merely in acknowledging acts of sin, but in recognising Him as the One sinned against; thus it touched the root of all sin. Their condition necessitated this conclusion, that if God spoke, there was nothing they could say, nothing they could do, except, indeed, adopt Job's confession, "I am vile," and then lay their hand upon their mouth. Such was their course, while the scribes and Pharisees, seeing it all, remained alike insensible to God's word and to God's grace in its full operation.
Insensibility to truth when heard is a most hardening thing, and the Lord's caution, "Take heed HOW ye hear," needs to be insisted upon again and again. For have we not now in abundance, lip profession and routine observance - the "I go, sir," and a certain amount of eye-service - while the heart is cold, the conscience is stifled, and the desires of the flesh or of the mind have their sway! There was no greater enemy to the truth - and therefore to Christ - than the Pharisee; and though the name is lost, the type remains in endless variety.
Having concluded this first aspect of God's dealings with man, the Lord passes on to another phase, characterised specially by responsibility. His language is as strikingly simple and as calm, though, under the guise of a parable, He is foretelling His own rejection and cruel death! "Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: and when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it." We have here, not merely the obligations flowing from relationship; that is, men are not left to the light of natural conscience, as we saw in the former case, but God has done something more, through which additional responsibility is incurred. It is HE who planted the vineyard - hedged it round about - digged the winepress and built the towers - and then entrusted it to husbandmen. Thus are represented His care and labour, in return for which He looks for fruit. As to general principles, the parable may be applied to all who have heard of Christ, and have refused to believe in Him; but, undoubtedly, its primary application is to the Jews, as they must well have understood. In Isaiah 5 the same figure and very similar language are used regarding them; and, as showing that He had taken the greatest possible pains, God there makes this appeal: "What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?" They utterly failed then to meet His just demands; and, in addition, maltreated or killed the prophets, who were commissioned to make them. "And the husbandmen took His servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise." After such forbearance, they certainly could expect nothing more. They still were the same in heart, as shown by the emphatic words, "Ye are the children of them which killed the prophets." (23:31.) Yet we know that God had still one resource, of which He availed Himself "Last of all, He sent them His Son, saying, They will reverence my Son." (Our Lord is represented here as sent for fruit, like the prophets; this was one, though not the, ultimate purpose of His coming to the vineyard.) We all know, also, how the just expectation of God regarding His Son was met. "When the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him." The end of responsibility, and of all this patient dealing of God with the Jewish people on that ground, was that they were glad of the occasion to kill the Heir, in order that they might seize upon the inheritance! "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto these husbandmen?" Righteous judgment is so loudly called for, that those who hear the parable, can at once pronounce it! They say unto Him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men."
Here then, again, we mark this great principle, that in whatever way God looks for response from man, He finds none. There is such a thing as God's looking for fruit from that which He has planted and nurtured in the world; but there is no fruit to be found from man towards God. The husbandmen's will was entirely and absolutely wrong. They did not recognise the authority of God in His vineyard. They liked to have it for themselves; and to gratify their desires, they would go to any lengths in unrighteousness. The parable in its most important feature, alas had its accomplishment; and its perfect truthfulness was but too manifest at the time in the spirit of those who ultimately brought it to pass: "When the chief priests and Pharisees had heard His parables, they perceived that He spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitude, because they took Him for a prophet."
Thus the effect of the ordinances God had given was only to bring out the enmity and hatred of those to whom He had entrusted His vineyard. Man placed in a certain religious position, patiently instructed, and blessed with external advantages, instead of rendering fruit to God, consummates the crowning act of iniquity. Religious man kills the Prince of Life! How solemn a warning to those who would be zealous for God, but who know Him not, because they know not and love not His Son. That religion which has not Christ as foundation and top-stone is worse than none at all.
But there are not a few persons of a different spirit, who, failing to see the result of this trial of man, are still dealing with God as though He were looking for fruit. They feel that God has given them certain spiritual advantages, opportunities of hearing, and the like, and that therefore they ought to return fruit to Him. And so they ought. But then, although such are not in a condition of soul answerable to that of the husbandmen who killed the heir, they have mistaken, and that altogether, the ground on which God is now dealing. And further, Christ Himself may be only thought of as seeking fruit - only looked at in the same light as the prophets! Where there is honesty and sincerity of heart, and the conscience is touched, deep impressions may result from considering the magnitude of God's love in the gift of His Son, and of that Son's love in coming from heaven to suffer on the cross; but yet these vast manifestations of love may be regarded solely as the strongest possible claims for fruit. Such assuredly: they are; but, as the parable shows, and above all its fulfilment proves, claim produces no fruit. Individual experience confirms this too. For one who sees in the love of God only a claim, in the perfectness of Christ only a claim, is soon convinced that no adequate return is rendered, and may conclude that there is no hope! Great exercise of soul may thus and in nothing but the sense of deserved condemnation. If God be still dealing with us on the ground of requirement, we must be brought in guilty, and judgment must follow the unsatisfied claim. Thus the love of God in Christ is made a severer and more terrible law than that given by Moses. When this love is put in the place of the law, the more the love is magnified, the greater the guilt in not fulfilling its demands. The more we elevate the claim of God, the more we aggravate our own condemnation.
In such cases, the word of God has at least not been read or, heard unheeded (as, alas! it so often is), though discrimination may have been wanting. The difficulty lies in not seeing that God has abandoned, as useless, the efforts to seek fruit from man. He has tried everything - "Last of all, He sent His Son;" and His Cross is conclusive. Man is ungodly; but further, he is "without strength." The next parable (following so significantly that of "the vineyard") tells how fully God has provided for our actual need.
"Jesus spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent, forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding." Observe, at the outset, how different is the character of the parable, It is not God's dealing with natural conscience, nor His looking for fruit as the owner of the vineyard; but it is the king purposing to honour his son out of the riches of his own house. Clearly the king is not presenting claims; he is giving - he is inviting. His desire is to glorify his well-beloved son, to have everything worthy of so joyful an occasion as the marriage of his son. He who gives a feast - especially if he be the king - provides everything. The guests are not expected to bring anything; nor is any return looked for. On the contrary, to think of such a thing, would be to insult the king - to despise his preparation or his intention. Moreover the king presents the wedding garments by which the guests are distinguished. If any rich man sought to come in raiment as costly as he could provide, he would only offend the king, just as would a poor man who wished to sit down in rags. There must be nothing which the king does not give - his bounty will richly, supply everything.
The king is not merely making a feast for the pleasure of those invited; but the object of their being invited is, that his son may be honoured. Still, while his chief thought is to show his regard for his son, he would have the guests to enter heartily into his joy. He desires that there may be full blessing at his table - happy faces around it - hearts without a care or shade of anxiety, free from every suspicion of his love. Such must be the accompaniments of the marriage supper of the King's son.
How simple and evident is the application of all this, in the light of what has gone before. Man has altogether failed. He does not own God's claim, or if he does, he cannot meet it; and must fall into despair. But God has it in purpose, through man, to glorify His Son, and His resources will avail to effect this, notwithstanding man's ruin. It is not within the scope of the parable to show how this apparently insuperable difficulty is overcome, consistently with God's holiness; but the fact of His offering such an invitation proves alike His benevolence, and the removal of the difficulty.
We have to consider the treatment of the invitation by those to whom it was first sent, and then God's further counsels. One design of the parable is to bring fully out the implacable enmity of the carnal mind against God, in the face of the utmost advances of His love; but this, happily, is not the main design.
God's invitation to the marriage-supper of His Son is first given to, those who had "the promises" - to those who had received so many proofs of His forgiving love - to those who were called, and professed to be "His own" - to the Jews. "And they would not come!" Under such circumstances, we should not be inclined to repeat the offer; but God does repeat it. As before, fresh messengers are sent again to bid them; and to remove all doubts, the preparations are detailed "Tell them, Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways." They deliberately despised the invitation of God - they had other and more important things of their own to - attend to. They went, "one to his farm, another to his merchandise." Yet more strange, but awfully conclusive as to man's hatred of the grace of God, when his conscience has not submitted to His righteousness - "The remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them!" How far soever the goodness and patience of God extend, the same evil results are met with continually from man.
The counterpart of all this is to be found in the "Acts of the Apostles." - The message of the apostles after the crucifixion was - "All things are ready;" nothing remains to be done. Abounding grace offered pardon to those even who had killed the Prince of Life. What estimate was formed of such glad tidings is to be found in the language of one who, through the grace of God, afterwards so fully and so widely proclaimed those very tidings: "Many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities." As a nation, the Jews heard the gospel only, to reject it, as they had rejected Him who was the living expression of it. The conduct of individuals may have varied, but in principle it was the same. The evil heart was seen in disowning the claim of God, but more especially in despising His marvellous grace. The carelessness that would make a sinner slight the King's invitation to the feast is precisely the same in kind that would lead him to kill his messengers, or even his son. Man's "own way" may produce any of these results.
Whether opposition to God's authority is evinced by the neglect, contempt, or rebellion of a nation or of an individual, His righteous judgments must surely follow, though for a season they may be delayed. So, in this instance, "When the king heard thereof, he was wroth; and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city."
But now we come to a most blessed truth. God has not given up aught of the fulness of His love, or of His purpose regarding His Son. He must have people around Him, and happy in being so. His house must be filled to honour His Son's marriage. Fresh guests must be found. "Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests." Here we evidently see the sending out of the invitation to those who were without the privileges and promises of the Jews - to those who had no hope, and who were without God in the world - to the Gentiles. The special characteristic of God's present action is seen in the command, "Go ye forth into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." The distinguishing principle is the full outflow of grace - the activity of God's love going out into the world and bringing in to partake of the blessings which Himself has provided. His, love goes out in simple grace to find "good or bad" to partake of the goodness of His house. Such is the principle God is acting on in the gospel. It is quite clear that He provides everything. He is not claiming fruit, but ministering blessing.
The effect of rightly understanding that God is glorifying His Son Jesus, is to make us put aside every thought but that. Let us be the most vile and wretched sinners in ourselves (as Paul says, "of whom I am chief"), all anxiety will be taken from our hearts, everything of uneasiness and uncertainty, because of the invitation. It is God's invitation, and for those to whom it is offered He provides everything that is needed. A poor man, thinking of himself, might say, "Oh, that cannot be for me, a poor man!" or if this doubt were dispelled, "I cannot enter the King's presence - my garments are not fit." In other words, "Can the invitation be for a sinner such as I know myself to be - besides, how can I appear before a holy God?" Thoughts like these may arise in the mind, and may continue until confidence is placed in the terms of the invitation, or rather in Him who gives it. The moment this is simply done, all fear and hesitation will be removed. The King's word will be counted on for everything.
But ought not the conscience to be thoroughly set at rest by that which God has done for us? Assuredly; He knows full well our unworthiness, our need, our guilt, and He has fully met them. He has given up His Son, He has sent Him into the place of our sin and misery to bear upon the cross that wrath which was our due; and if, taking the estimate of ourselves which all this implies, we receive, as lost, helpless sinners, God's testimony to the work of Christ for sinners, what room is there for doubt or dread? Christ has tasted death, has gone down under the power of Satan under the wrath of God, has taken our place; but God has raised Him from the dead, and has seated Him in power and glory at His own right hand, thus showing the perfect sufficiency of His sacrifice for sin. God has been perfectly glorified in the earth by His own Son, the man Christ Jesus, and sin has been expiated by the death of the sinless One. These have been done altogether apart from us; therefore God can say, "All things are ready; come to the feast."
If we speak one word or have a thought about right to stand in the presence of God, it destroys the whole ground upon which God is acting in fulness of grace. It is quite clear that any one who allows for a moment the idea that he has to provide his share in the feast, or to compensate for it, can have no sense of the king's honour, or of his own deal - inability. God does not offer salvation at a price, or for a return. There is no stipulation, no covenant, no vow; but a GIFT is offered which cannot be accepted otherwise than as a gift. When it is deceived as such (and not before), fruit is produced - the fruit of gratitude, issuing in thanksgiving (Heb. 13:15) and life-service. (Rom. 12:1.)
Any hesitation to accept God's invitation is to cast dishonour, to that extent, on His power or on His love. The invitation is our sole title, and, coming from One who knows us so well, it merits our entire confidence. It is for all in "the highways," whether it meets us as beggars or princes, so to speak. "The servants gathered together all, as many as they found." No exception was made; none were to be passed by uninvited. The king's command is clear - "As many as ye shall find bid to the marriage." The only deal question for those who head the gospel invitation is, "Has the conscience submitted to the righteousness of God? Is the invitation accepted as one of the purest grace?" If so, it is theirs to cast aside all the anxieties that sin occasions, and to enter into the joy of the king, in the happy assurance that their place is to sit at his table. Blessing is secure through his sufficiency and his grace.
There is a sad incident, which must not be overlooked. "When the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not a wedding garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless." Grace had been mocked at by this man; for he had not obtained the indispensable wedding robe, doubtless thinking, by foolish comparison, his own good enough. The instruction from this is evident. God has, at infinite cost, provided for us whose robes are all sin stained a spotless garment, such as is alone suited to His holy presence; and great indeed is the presumption that, with the pretence of accepting, virtually despises this gracious provision. "And he was speechless." With memory quickened, conscience fully awake, sin seen in its true colours, and the majesty of God apprehended, who shall dare utter a word! Judgment proportionate to guilt shall follow, and heavy surely it will be in the cases of which this is an example. "Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
On the other hand, if, acknowledging our guilt and incapacity, we accept that which God vouchsafes to give, our fears will vanish, and our lips will be opened to render to Him the glory, and to rejoice in honouring His Son. Are our hearts thus in the spirit of the wedding? Are our thoughts in unison with those of God regarding Christ? If not, however near to Him we may think ourselves, we have nothing to do with the wedding. The principle of the whole matted is in question - "How camest thou in hither, not having a wedding garment?"
God's heart is set upon the glory of Christ, and that glory is connected with the joy and blessing of those who have submitted to His righteousness and welcomed the riches of His grace. If our hearts are occupied with the glory of Christ, we shall not be thinking, in one sense, of what we are, or of what we were; our thoughts will dwell upon the Blessed, and upon the blessedness into which we have been brought.