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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are back into our series on Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Mark. And today we begin in on a passage found in Mark 9:33-50, which will take us a few weeks to work our way through.

We’re gonna look specifically at vs. 33-37 this morning, focused on arguments about who’s the greatest in the church community. But before we jump in, let’s back up and look at –

The bigger picture

Mark 9:33-50 is a part of a yet larger section of teaching that comes between Jesus’ second and third prediction of his death. This is teaching for his disciples about living life after his death and resurrection – after Jesus is gone. It’s preparation for this. The first part of this has to do with the household of the church: Mark 9:33-50 – which is our focus. The second has to do with earthly households: Mark 10:1-31 (marriage – vs. 1-12; children – vs. 13-16; wealth – vs. 17-31).

Now let’s look a bit more at what Jesus says about –

The household of the church – Mark 9:33-50

You have a handout that outlines the passage. This is where we’ll be going in the next few weeks. The common theme is relationships in Jesus’ community of disciples. And the point of this whole passage is found at the very end, in  v. 50 – “Be at peace with one another.”

As you can see in your handout, he covers three relationship problems: arguing over who is the greatest, rejecting those who are not from your group and looking down on those who seem unimportant. Then he stresses in the clearest possible way the danger that awaits those who cause division and strife in his community in, what I am calling the three amputation sayings and the three salt sayings.

So this is what we are looking at and we begin with the first kind of conflict, the disciples arguing about –

Who’s the greatest?

v. 33 – “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’” Capernaum was Jesus’ home base. It was a fishing village on the  sea of Galilee.

Jesus checks in on his disciples to see what they were discussing. Maybe it was an especially intense conversation and he wants to see what’s going on.

v. 34 – “But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” They were silent because they knew better than to openly argue about such a thing.

Jesus has been teaching them about the coming of the kingdom of God and they expected to have an exalted place in that kingdom, based on their service to Jesus now.

And that expectation was right. As Jesus indicates in Matthew 19:28 – “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

But who would have the highest place? Whose throne would be the best? Whose would be next to Jesus and whose would be furthest away?

v. 35 – “And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” Jesus sits down because this is what teachers did in that day. He has something to share with them about the true path to greatness – which is very different than what people in the world think.

The way to be great is to be “last of all and servant of all.” This is an important teaching that is repeated in different ways by Jesus:

  • Mark 10:43-44 – “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
  • Luke 22:26 – “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
  • Matthew 23:11 – “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”

If in the world you become great by putting yourself forward to be recognized, clawing your way to the top while pushing others down, being arrogant and self-focused – in the kingdom you become great by lowering yourself and being the last of all.

If being great in the world means being served by others – in the kingdom being great means serving others.

Jesus is saying to his disciples – it’s OK to seek to be great, but you’re going about it in exactly the wrong way.

  • Don’t focus on raising yourself up and being recognized and served.
  • Focus on lowering yourself and serving others’ needs.

For this is what greatness means in the kingdom of God. And these God himself will raise up to be honored.

And then Jesus gives an illustration. v. 36 – “And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms . . .” Apparently the child is from the house where they are.

Remember that in biblical times children were not held in the same high regard as they are today in the West. They were often seen as no more than slaves, until they grew up. They had no power or social status. They were not put on a pedestal. They were on the bottom – lowly and last.

And so what does Jesus do? “Taking him in his arms” can also be translated as “embracing him.” Jesus hugs the child. A simple act of love; the giving of attention and affection. Jesus is saying, “This is what I’m talking about.”

Then he gives the lesson. vs. 36-37 – “. . . he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’”

 To receive someone means to welcome them. To welcome them in the name of Jesus is to do this on behalf of Jesus; as his representative; as his servant.

Jesus is saying that greatness comes from accepting the lowest social status in order to serve others – in this case a child. You put yourself below the lowly one, so that you can love and minister to their needs. Instead of the lowly ones focusing on you and lifting you up, you focus on them and lift them up by serving them.

And what you will find is that you will not be serving no-bodies, you know, people who can’t help you out in return (Luke 1413-14), you will be serving Jesus and indeed the Father.

Let me ask the question, then –

How do we seek out worldly greatness?

How do we try to be better than others in our church community? It’s usually not open. Like the disciples we know that we shouldn’t openly pursue this. But we do have subtle ways of seeking to put ourselves above others.

Here’s an example: a pastor who’s focus is on success, defined as having a bigger and bigger church and being recognized by others; a kind of celebrity. In other words this pastor has a worldly definition of success. Now, it isn’t wrong to grow or to be recognized. But the point of ministry is to place yourself below others to serve them, not above them to be recognized. To lift them up, not to be lifted up.

A church member who wants a certain role. And so pushes to get it, manipulates, pressures and politicks for it. This is really just self-promotion – seeking the honor of the role, not seeking to serve others.

Rivalries between church members. You know, over who is more gifted, or more faithful? Rivalries for the admiration of other members, or agreement on key issues that the church is discussing – creating factions.

A church member who wants to be recognized. You have worked hard and no one seems to notice. And so you are angry and a little bitter. And so you start laying out hints to get others to notice you. Again it is not wrong to be recognized. And maybe others are failing to appreciate you. But it’s wrong to seek to be recognized or to set your heart on gaining that. That is the way of the world.

When we take up the agenda of worldly greatness we strain, damage and destroy our relationships with each other. And the church is weakened and distracted from doing what God calls us to do. Any group that is focused on such things is not going to be able to be focused on loving God and loving each other and serving God in the world. So you can see the importance of us having good relationships with each other.

Jesus’ word to us

Stop seeking worldly greatness among yourselves, and “be at peace with one another” – v. 50.

Only seek kingdom greatness, which will eliminate the conflict over who has the most status and who should be recognized.

And then let God exalt you at the right time. Don’t even worry about this. Keep on lowering yourself to serve and leave the agenda of recognition in God’s hands. It may not come until the final day, but wait for it. It will be worth it.

William Higgins

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Today we look at more teaching from the gospel of Mark and we come to the important Parable of the Vineyard Tenants. I say important because it really gives us Jesus’ own perspective on his ministry and what is about to happen as his time of ministry comes to an end. I want us to look at what this parable means, and draw out some lessons for us to remember as we share in the Lord’s supper together.

Overview of the parable

vs. 1-2 – “And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.’” [Jesus is using portions of Isaiah 5:1-7 which tells a similar story.]

This setup was not uncommon in that day. You have an absentee land owner who leases out the farm to tenant workers. The agreement would go like this:

  • The owner has the land and sets things up, as he does here: planting the vines and building a fence, a pit and a tower: all that you need to produce wine.
  • And the tenants are to work the farm and give the owner a reasonable return when the harvest comes, several years later (Leviticus 19:23-25).

And so v. 2 ends with the owner sending a servant, “when the season came” to collect what’s due.

The first servant: vs. 2-3 – “ . . . he sent a servant . . .. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.” There were often disagreements between owners and tenants, just as today.

A second servant: v. 4 – “Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully.”

A third servant: v. 5 – “And he sent another, and him they killed.” [This more than meets the requirement of two to three witnesses of their wrong.]

More servants: And if this wasn’t enough already v. 5 continues, “And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.” He had a lot of servants, but they had all been unsuccessful in collecting what was due.

His son: v. 6 – “He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” “Beloved” means his only son, and so very dear to the father (Genesis 22:2). And this is the only representative the owner had left to send.

Perhaps the owner figured that since his son has full legal authority, and has higher rank than a mere servant – they will have to respect him!

The tenants reasoned differently, however. vs. 7-8 – “But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.”

Maybe they thought the owner was dead since the son came? Or maybe they thought the owner was too old or too far away, or too weak to enforce his claims on the property. By the rules of that day tenants could inherit the land they worked, if the owner and heirs were dead or unwilling to make a claim. So they kill the son and throw him out, without even burying him, a real insult.

Jesus then asks, v. 9 – “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The owner is not dead or weak. And there are grave consequences for the actions of the tenants.

The story the parable tells

– is really the story of God and his people and it is the story of Jesus.

  • The vineyard is the people of God – this was a common image in Scripture (Isaiah 5:2, Psalm 80:8-9, Jeremiah 2:21).
  • The owner is God whenever God’s people are seen as a vineyard. The word translated in v. 9 as “owner” is actually “lord,” which has a double meaning, pointing to “the Lord.”
  • The fruit of the vineyard is faithfulness. This is what God’s people owe to God.
  • The servants are prophets, sent by God to call his people to obedience. As Jeremiah 7:25-26 says “From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck.”
  • The tenants are the leaders of Jerusalem. This parable comes in the context of a long argument with the leaders of Jerusalem. And even these leaders, v. 12 tells us, “perceived that he had told the parable against them.”
  • Finally, the beloved son is Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark God calls Jesus this at his baptism (Mark 1:11) and at his transfiguration (Mark 9:7).

First we have, the story that has already happened:

– God did form a people for himself. He blessed them and sought their faithfulness.

– And when they didn’t give it God did send messenger after messenger to call them to obedience. But they refused to listen.

– And now as the culmination God has sent Jesus, his beloved, only Son. The one who has all authority. The one who is dear to his heart.

Then we have the story that is yet to come:

– Like in the parable, the leaders have no regard for Jesus, even though he is God’s Son. In fact, they will soon kill Jesus. And in a shameful way, like in the story.

– But God, his Father, will act. God will “destroy” these leaders, which happened in 70 AD, when Jerusalem was destroyed.

– And God will give leadership of his people to “others,” referring to the followers of Jesus, his Son.

And then we have –

A short Scripture lesson

– attached to our story. Here we switch from the vineyard as an image of God’s people to that of a building or more likely the temple as an image of God’s people.

vs. 10-11 – “Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” This comes from Psalm 118:22-23. Psalm 118 was often sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals. It was well known.

Now, the reason these verses are attached to this parable has to do with the wordplay between – the Hebrew/Aramaic word for son, “ben,” which is the focus of the parable, and the word for stone, “eben,” which is the focus of these verses (Matthew Black).

When it says “cornerstone” it is literally “the head of the corner.” It is referring to the most important stone in the whole building. Perhaps the stone at the peak of the arch, or a capstone on a column or a stone at the top of a building that completes it.

In Jesus’ day this was often seen as referring to king David. He was the one overlooked by Samuel at first, and then by the leaders of Israel. But he became the king of Israel.

This was also read by some as pointing to the Messiah, the coming son of David. When Jesus entered Jerusalem just before this, the crowds quote Psalm 118:26 – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and then interpret it in a messianic way when they say, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10)

The message is clear: Jesus is the stone that was rejected and cast aside by the builders (the religious leaders), but God will vindicate him and raise him up as the chief stone of the whole building. Just as God brought about a marvelous reversal of fortune for David, so God will do this for Jesus, David’s son.

This raising image is an apt one for the idea of being vindicated, as well as for the resurrection of Jesus (Joel Markus).

[These verses also connect to the parable in that they expand a bit on the vineyard being given to others. If David is the original reference in Psalm 118, then Jesus is saying it will be similar now in his case. Just as the kingdom was taken from Saul and given to David and his line, so the leadership of the people of God is now given to Jesus and his followers]

An ironic ending

The passage ends with v. 12 – “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” The leaders are seeking to do just what Jesus said they would do, in his parable that they didn’t like!

As we share in the Lords’ supper

– let’s remember some lessons from this passage of Scripture: 1. Let’s remember God’s amazing patience and love. The parable highlights these qualities of God.

God sent three servants. Then God sent even more. God put up with a lot. This shows that he really loves us and wants us to come back to him and for us to be faithful.

Then he sent his son to call us back. Now why would he risk this given what happened to his servants? The only answer is God’s profoundly amazing love for us!

2. Let’s remember the terrible consequences of disobedience. God really does require our obedience. And if we don’t give this, or in this case, if the leaders stand in the way of this – there is judgment. This is what happened in the history of Israel, it is what is predicted in the parable and it is what happened in the fulfillment in 70 A.D.

God is patient and loving, yes. But God will not tolerate sin forever. There is a limit, and a time when we must reap what we have sown.

3. Let’s remember who Jesus is. He is God’s beloved and only Son. He is the one who died, coming to call us to repentance. He is the one who was rejected and cast aside. And he is the chief stone, raised up by God – vindicated and resurrected.

William Higgins

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(rewritten)

Proverbs 23:29-35

“Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is, how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down. For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper. You will see hallucinations, and you will say crazy things. You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a swaying mast. And you will say, ‘They hit me, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even know it when they beat me up. When will I wake up so I can look for another drink?’” (NLT)

Let me begin by telling you what I’m not talking about this morning. I am not talking about whether a Christian can or cannot drink alcohol in moderation. Christians can disagree about this and I have expressed myself on this before – see here.

What I’m here to do is to emphasize the line which the Scriptures draw quite clearly, which is that drunkenness is wrong. And as we will see, this certainly includes drug abuse as well.

But more than just make this point, I want us to look at why this is forbidden, to get some insight into this. Is God just not fun? What’s up with this?

First, we look at what is clear in Scripture

Drunkenness is forbidden

This is especially plain in the New Testament. Turn to 1 Peter 4:3. “The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do . . . drunkenness . . . (and) drinking parties . . ..” Peter is saying, Stop doing these things! You are believers now. You know, haven’t you already wasted enough of your time with this?” Look at v. 4. He says, your friends may be shocked that you don’t do this anymore, but, as he says in v. 2, you are to live your live after God’s will from now on.

In Ephesians 5:18 Paul says it quite simply, with 4 words, “do not get drunk . . ..”

Then he spells it out a bit in Galatians 5:19-21. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality . . . drunkenness (etc.) . . .. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Here we learn that it is a work of the flesh, a sin like sexual immorality (and the other items on this list). And if you persist in it, you will be judged; you will be rejected by Jesus on that final day.

And then, just in case it isn’t clear enough already, we also have 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. “Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral . . . nor drunkards . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” Whatever rationalization you might want to entertain, Paul is saying, “don’t be deceived.” It is wrong and it will kill you eternally. (See also Romans 13:13)

This is why this teaching is a part of our congregational covenant. A commitment to this scriptural standard is a basic part of the Christian life and it is a part of what it means to be baptized.

Now, let’s look at three reasons why drunkenness is forbidden.

1. It will destroy you

 When you’re drunk you lose control of your mental faculties and of your behavior in general. This is the definition of drunkenness or intoxication. You also lose control when you are “high” on drugs. The result of this is that you end up hurting yourself in very serious ways. Let’s look at some Scriptural descriptions of this sad reality.

It will make a fool of you. Proverbs 23:23 talks about having “hallucinations” when you are drunk. You lose touch with reality and this shows up in your behavior. This also comes out in Proverbs 23:35. The drunk person says, “They hit me, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even know it when they beat me up.”

You won’t even be able to walk. Proverbs 23:34 speaks of those who “stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a mast.” Isaiah 28:7 talks about people who reel, stumble and stagger.

Drunkenness also makes you stupid. Proverbs 23:33 says, “you will say crazy things.” Proverbs 20:1 says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler” That is, you can become arrogant, obnoxious, overconfident and even violent when you are drunk (Proverbs 23:29 mentions “fighting”).

Related to making poor decisions, this year, 10,839 people will die in drunk-driving crashes; one every 50 minutes (MADD website)

Finally, we know the story of Genesis 9 where Noah is passed out, naked in his tent from drinking too much. As Proverbs 20:1 says at the end “whoever is led astray by (wine and strong drink) is not wise.” No, you become a fool for all to see.

It will lead you to degrade yourself morally. Ephesians 5:18 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” Debauchery means unrestrained self-indulgent immoral behavior. And that make sense. Once you’re drunk and lose control, who knows what you will do, or what will be done to you?

Alcohol is a sin magnifier. It amplifies whatever sinful desires you have and takes away whatever restraint you might normally have.

Long term, it will make you poor. Proverbs 23:20-21 says simply, “Be not among one who drinks too much wine or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”

It will bring you sorrow. This is the result of what we have seen thus far. Proverbs 23:29-30 says, “Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks.” This is talking about reaping what you have sown, from all the stupidness of your drunkenness.

It will enslave you. This reality is described in Scripture. In Proverbs 23:35 the passed out drunk says to himself, “When will I wake up so I can look for another drink?” After all the pain, all you want is more.

Isaiah 28:7 speaks of drunkards, not as those who swallow wine, but as those who are “are swallowed by wine.”

Titus 2:3 says, older women are not to be “slaves to much wine.” The language of enslavement is explicit here.

It can kill you. To the one given to drunkenness, wine may look good, it may be enticing, but really “in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper” – Proverbs 23:32. And, of course, alcohol can be literally poisonous. In the United States, roughly 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning deaths are reported each year. (alcoholinformation. com)

2. It will destroy your relationship with others

When you don’t have control of your thinking and your behavior, you cannot love and serve others. You will lack the judgment and clarity of thought needed to do this. Rather than loving your neighbor as yourself, you will more likely be ignoring or harming others.

This is especially a problem for those that you have charge of, because drunkenness will cause you to forsake your responsibilities to them.

Proverbs 31:4-5 says, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” There is a real theme in both the Old and New Testaments that leaders must not be those who drink too much precisely because they are responsible for many people. (Isaiah 5:22-23; 28:7; Ecclesiastes 10:16-17).

Paul tells us that church Elders are not to be “drunkards” (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7) and Deacons must not be “indulging in much wine” (1 Timothy 3:8)

This is certainly true for parents with children in the home. An estimated 6.6 million children under 18 live in households with at least one alcoholic parent (alcoholinformation.com). Just to give one indicator, alcohol is involved in half of the reported cases of domestic violence (Betty Ford center).

But even short of violence, drug and alcohol abuse brings untold pain to families. It is a sad reality when a parent loves alcohol more than their child.

You cannot both love and serve others and have a life given to drug and alcohol abuse. It is impossible.

3. It will destroy your relationship with God

When you don’t have control of your thinking and your behavior, you cannot love and serve God. You have to have clear thinking and self control to serve God and these are the very things you give up when you are drunk. Who knows what you will do? You certainly won’t be loving God will all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

And then when you’re enslaved, your god actually becomes alcohol. You live a life of idolatry, giving up everything for it and looking to it for peace.

Isaiah 5:11-12 says, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them! . . . they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands.” In the context here it is a part of why the people went off into the judgment of exile. (See also Hosea 4:10-11)

Jesus said in Luke 21:34, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness . . . and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” This is talking about when he returns. If you are given to drunkenness you will not be ready for Jesus.

You cannot both love God and have a life given to alcohol or drug abuse. It is impossible.

An encouragement

So these are three reasons why God forbids drug and alcohol abuse. But let me say, I do not share this to condemn anyone or to make you feel guilty (unless that guilt leads you to change). The reason behind these reasons is that God loves you. And God wants what is best for you and for those you love.

And the good news is that Jesus gives us the power to overcome. You can find new life. You can learn to love others. You can come to love God fully. It may not be easy. It may be the hardest thing you will ever do. But Jesus gives us the power to overcome.

William Higgins

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Last week we began looking at Mark 7:1-23. In vs. 1-13 Jesus pointed out the problems of man-made religious rules; the traditions of the elders. This week we will focus on the other point of dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees –

The issue of impurity

Now, this isn’t the most exciting topic, but it is  important for understanding this passage. So here we go. In Scripture an object or a person becomes ritually impure by contact with a corpse, through various bodily discharges (which I will spare you listing them), or by touching someone who has these.

This creates a problem because God is holy and completely pure. So, if you are impure, you can’t come near to God. You can’t come near the temple, you can’t offer sacrifice (a real concern for priests) and also in some cases you had to stay away from other people. But you could be made ritually pure again by undergoing the proper ritual, which often involved water.

The Pharisees especially emphasized ritual purity. And in their traditions the rules for purity multiplied greatly and they were applied broadly to everyone. The Pharisees’ goal seems to have been for regular people to maintain the highest possible state of ritual purity. Mark 7:3-4 says they “do not eat unless they wash their hands . . . and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.”

The Pharisees and those who were influenced by them, thought that this was what the people of God needed; this was the agenda for moving forward for renewal and for once again receiving God’s blessing.

This bring us to –

Jesus’ parable on impurity

v. 14 – “And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand.’” He has a message for the crowd. And he begins by saying hear and understand. This is important.

But also he is saying – this is going to be difficult to understand! It’s called “a parable” in v. 17, and it is meant to be a cryptic statement. So you have to put some effort into understanding it. v. 16 is not in the earliest manuscripts, but it emphasizes this point as well, “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Here is the parable: v. 15 – “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Notice that there are two parallel halves to this. And each half contains a series of contrasts with the other. There is:

  • a contrast between the outside, and the inside
  • a contrast between things that go in from the outside, and things that come out from the inside
  • a contrast between what cannot defile (what goes in), and what does defile (what comes out)

So this much is clear. But what else in the world is he talking about?? Thankfully we have –

Jesus’ explanation

vs. 17-18 – “And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding?’” Like in other places in the gospels, Jesus explains his teaching in private to his disciples.

First, he deals with the first half of the parable. v. 18-19 – “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and goes out into the toilet – cleansing all foods?”

We are reminded of the bigger context here. Jesus is talking about food. But then something happens. When he tells us why the food doesn’t defile, he talks about how “it enters not his heart.” This is odd until you realize that Jesus is shifting the conversation from one on ritual purity, to one exclusively about moral purity – with a focus on the human heart.

This is the key to understanding the parable. He’s not saying whether food does or does not defile someone. He just doesn’t address this. Rather, he’s saying – no food can make someone morally impure. Hold on to this. We will come back to it.

A digression: At the end of v. 19 we have a dangling participial phrase that is difficult to make sense of, and it shows up differently in different bibles. In the earliest manuscripts it says literally, “cleansing all foods,” which can be construed in different ways. (The phrase, “thus he declared . . .” is not in the Greek text. It’s simply one way to make sense of this). Just briefly, my view is that it’s best to see it as the conclusion of Jesus’ point here. The digestive process cleanses all foods, keeping the good and expelling the bad.

[I take it as a grammatical oddity – an anacoluthon. The KJV and NKJV are based on later manuscripts which also connect the phrase to the digestive process, but by means of a change to the word “cleansing”).] [What is certain is that Jesus is not doing away with Mosaic food laws for Jews. He has just skewered the Pharisees for not holding to and nullifying the commandment of God through Moses. How could he then turn around in the very next breath and say that a large portion of Mosaic commandments are nullified? The issue of obedience to Mosaic Law for Gentiles was dealt with later in Acts 15 with the apostolic decree.]

Next, Jesus explains the second half of the parable. v. 20 – “And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.’” Also notice v. 21, “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ..” And as well v. 23, “ . . . evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” So food can’t make someone morally impure, but the evil that comes out from the heart does defile.

Again, Jesus isn’t  talking about ritual purity. He has shifted to a conversation about moral purity or impurity. Why? Because the real issue for Jesus is not ritual impurity but heart impurity or defilement.

[The rhetorical move is indicative of his substantive position.] [This means he isn’t giving a ruling here on whether Jews should maintain the teaching of Moses on this – although he did know that soon the temple would soon be destroyed and so ritual purity would be impossible to maintain.]

Having heard his explanation, here is a paraphrase of his parable: There is no food that you take in that can make you morally impure. But the evil things that come out of your heart do make you morally impure. 

Next, Jesus goes on to talk at some length about –

The evil of the human heart

vs. 21-23 – “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In v. 21 he speaks of “evil thoughts” and in v. 23 of “evil things.” And in-between these there are 12 things that Jesus mentions. The first six are actions that are forbidden by the ten commandments. The second six are more evil attitudes or dispositions of the heart. (See outline)

Jesus certainly agreed with the words of Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”

Let’s step back now and look at the bigger picture and –

Jesus’ central point

The Pharisees’ agenda for renewal is about outward rules of purity. They focus on ever more detailed rules for how to stay ritually pure. And they say that this is how God’s people will be renewed; this is how Israel will find God’s favor.

But yet as Jesus said in Mark 7:6, even with all this “their heart is far from God.” And that’s because the real problem is an impure heart. That’s why he doesn’t even talk about ritual purity. This is all beside the point. As he said, the food doesn’t touch the heart. Since ritual purity or impurity doesn’t deal with the moral impurity of the heart, there is no way that a focus on this can solve the problem. The Pharisees have the wrong agenda for renewal.

In contrast, Jesus’ agenda for renewal is the giving of a new heart. This is what was promised in the prophets. For instance in Ezekiel 36:25-27. The Lord says,

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

This is what God’s people need!! Something that deals with the evil of the human heart – the problem. We need a new, clean heart, given by the Spirit; a heart that has right desires.

Now, he doesn’t talk about the positive part of this in this passage, just what the real problem is. But this is Jesus’ whole mission in coming to us:

  • He died so that our sins might be forgiven; our moral defilement cleansed.
  • And he was raised so that we might receive the Spirit and a new heart that obeys the Lord.

Well, again, it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees –

But what about us?

We don’t have ritual purity rules like in Jesus’ day. We have rules for purity, but they are more about hygiene than blocking one’s access to God. But we do sometimes try to be transformed by focusing on the outside, without dealing with our hearts.

Here are some examples:

  • Going to church just because you think mere attendance will bring about a spiritual change in you.
  • Dressing in a certain way, having good manors, or not saying “bad” words, because we think if we look like our life is together on the outside, it will fix what is on the inside.
  • Going through certain religious rituals, maybe it’s fasting for Lent, as if being more disciplined outwardly will deal with our heart issue.
  • Doing good deeds – volunteering, helping out in the community as the fix for our inner evil heart.

None of these things are bad, and with a new heart they can be helpful for sure. But like the Pharisees we can think the outward is the key to spiritual renewal; that we should begin with the outward without first dealing with our evil hearts.

Jesus is teaching us to deal with the real issue within: our impure, evil heart. Do you want a new life with God? Do you want to overcome a habitual sin in that you continue to struggle with? Start within!

– Let Jesus cleanse away the defilement of your heart.

– Let Jesus give you a new heart.

And then once you are renewed within, the outward can follow.

William Higgins

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We have looked at a number of stories from the gospel of Mark over the last year or so. And in the same way, now I want us to work through, here and there, some of the teaching of Jesus in Mark.

We begin today with an important passage – Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two issues going on in the passage – human traditions and the issue of purity. The plan is to deal with the first today in vs. 1-13. And we will look a the second, purity, next week.  The Scripture begins with Jesus involved in –

A conflict

vs. 1-2 – “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.”

So some Pharisees and some experts in the Law from Jerusalem have come around. They’re checking Jesus out. What’s he up to now And lo and behold they see some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they eat.

Now, this isn’t about good hygiene. As v. 2 indicates, it has to do with ritual uncleanness or defilement; that is to say, eating this way makes you unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain – vs. 3-4 – “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)”

[“All the Jews” is a bit of a generalization. Certainly the Pharisees who were influential held to the need for washing hands, as did the Essences another prominent group of Jews. One word in not translated. It comes at the end of the phrase, “they wash their hands . . ..” It says literally “with a fist.” No one knows for sure what this means. It might mean “carefully” or it might refer to how the hands are ritually washed. The very last phrase, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all manuscripts. So if your bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers understand the situation. 1) Washing things was a big deal for many Jews. Especially the Pharisees. And 2) the command to wash hands comes from “the tradition of the elders” not the Law.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It is sometimes called the oral law. The idea was that Moses wrote down the Law in the Bible, but other instructions were passed on generation to generation by word of mouth. (This tradition was later written out in the Mishna, and other writings.) So there are two sources of commandments, the written Law and the oral tradition of the elders.

v. 5 – “And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” This is really an attack on Jesus. The charge is that his disciples are not faithful to God, which means, since he is their teacher, he is not faithful. (see Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of keeping the traditions, and what purity means. We will focus on the first, ‘Why don’t you keep the tradition?’

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response is, You abandon true worship of God for your tradition. vs. 6-7 – “And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 29:3. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

He is focusing on their relationship to God in this first part of his response. His point is that they look like they are honoring and worshipping God with their lips, or on the outside. But their heart is far away. That’s why he calls them hypocrites – with them it looks like one thing but it is really another.

Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because it is only about teaching and following human rules. He is saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys. v. 8 – “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

There is a contrast here between:

  • worship that is based on God and God’s commandment, and
  • worship that is based on men’s commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response is, You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your tradition. v. 9 – “And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

That is to say, when the two come into conflict, God’s commandment and your tradition, you go with your tradition for how to treat people. And this annuls God’s commandment.

Jesus then gives an example of their error. v. 10 – “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” Jesus is quoting Exodus 20:12 the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17.

It is understood by all that honoring parents (for adult children) means caring for them financially when they are older. The second reference (Exodus 21:17) shows how serious this issue of honoring parents is. Those who revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

vs. 11-12 – “But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother . . .” Notice the strong contrast between what God has said through Moses, and what they say based on their tradition.

The word Corban is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (the Temple), but you still use them until a later time. Based on their tradition the Pharisees said that you must honor your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents.

v. 13 – “. . . thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” They allow people to nullify what God commands, in order to keep a vow that is unrighteous in the first place. Indeed, they allow not only the breaking of the fifth commandment, but an action that is on a par with reviling one’s parents, which deserves the death penalty!

A summary of the argument. Their charge was – Jesus, you are not faithful to God because you do not keep the tradition. His response was – Pharisees, you are not faithful to God because you keep the tradition.

  • You abandon true worship of God, for your traditions (section 1)
  • You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your traditions (section 2)

More specifically notice the word “honor” in both Isaiah 29 and Exodus 20. Jesus is saying, you neither honor God nor do you teach proper honor of parents.

And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law (Exodus 20) and the Prophets (Isaiah 29). That is, based on God’s true word.

Well it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees,

But what about us?

What religious rules do you have that are not from God’s word, but things that you think are really important. So important that everybody should really follow them. It’s not hard to find them. For instance there are many connected to the way we worship at church. Do we sing old hymns or new choruses? Should the sermon be long and about evangelism each week – with an altar call, or not? Should there be shouting of praise and dancing, or not?

Maybe you would see “the tradition of the elders” as equaling doing things the way we have always done things. But maybe our religious rule is that we have to be on the cutting edge and always do something new in worship. It can work either way.

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to worship as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some rules. The question Jesus raises is do we love our rules so much that we place them above God’s commands?

Let’s look at another example. The way we dress for church. You see how I am dressed today – old paint clothes and they are dirty as well. I have not conformed to the rules for how a pastor should dress for church according to our received religious rules.

But you know what? There is nothing in Scripture about how I am supposed to dress for church, apart from being modest. We are to cover our bodies in such a way that we are not a sexual temptation to others. (Which I think I have done.)

I know that many have the conviction that you ought wear your best to church in order to honor God. That is fine. If you are doing it to honor God then that is excellent!

But here is where we can cross the line. If you come to me and say, “Pastor, why aren’t you dressed up today? You have to dress up on Sunday to be faithful to God! You have to wear a certain kind of clothes to be a real pastor!” If you do this, you have put a mere human religious rule above God’s commands. Because you say I cannot be faithful to God unless I follow your rule. And I am condemned because of it, even though God does not condemn me.

And, of course, this can go the other way too. You can go to a church where if you don’t dress down, you are breaking the religious rule and are condemned.

Well, this is what Jesus is warning us about today.

  • Don’t let your worship of God be based on human rules. There are thousands of different ways to worship God faithfully – that look nothing like the way we do it here. So don’t say that if others don’t follow your rules that it isn’t real or faithful worship. It has to be judged based on God’s commands.
  • And don’t nullify God’s law, just so you can maintain your religious rules. Love and welcome your neighbor instead of wrongly condemning them because of how they dress, or whether they shout “Praise the Lord” during worship.

In every area of life, beware that your religious rules don’t take over and become more important than God’s word and commandment.

William Higgins

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Listen to Psalm 70 –

“Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!”

“Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them turn back because of their shame who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’”

“May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’”

“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!”

This is a prayer to God from someone who really needs help. I like this Psalm. It’s short, it’s to the point and it’s honest. [It is actually found in another part of Scripture, almost word for word in Psalm 40:13-17.]

Alright, let’s begin with –

The opening plea

v. 1 – “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!’

The writer is waiting on God, a common theme in the Psalms, and a common experience for the people of God. He needs “deliverance” and “help.”

He is waiting on God for this, but he wants God to respond in a hurry. Notice the phrase “make haste” in the second sentence. (It is actually not found in the first sentence, but is supplied by the translators. Literally it says, “O God to deliver me.”) Also, notice in v. 5, “hasten to me,” and “do not delay.” No doubt the urgency of the request is connected to his particular circumstances.

So, let’s look at –

His situation

vs. 2-3 – “Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them turn back because of their shame who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’”

He is being attacked by enemies. He feels his life is threatened. His enemies are trying to hurt him. They say, “Aha” which is a taunt, and perhaps connected to unjustly accusing him of wrong.

From these same verses let’s look at –

His prayer concerning his enemies

  • “Let them be put to shame and confusion . . .”
  • “Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor . . .”
  • “Let them turn back because of their shame . . .”

First of all, he wants their efforts to come to naught. He says, “let them be turned back” that is, ‘let their attack fail so that they turn back in retreat.’

Second, he wants his enemies to be shamed and dishonored for coming after him in the first place. He wants all to see that he has done no wrong and that the attack was unjustified. In other words he wants vindication.

This is pretty mild compared to how some of the Psalms pray for harm to come to their enemies. But as Christians, even here we would also need to pray for good to come to our enemies. Our Lord says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). He says, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” ( Luke 6:28).

Next, he offers up –

A prayer for the righteous

v. 4 – “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’”

If the previous section focused on those who seek his harm, this one focuses on those who seek God. He prays that all who love God will be able to give thanks to God, because of how God delivers and saves them. He asks that there will be much praise of God for all that God has done to help his people.

But this isn’t where he is. And so he ends again with –

His plea

v. 5 – “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!”

He is still waiting on God. He isn’t able to enter in to the rejoicing yet. He is “poor and needy.” This isn’t a statement his wealth or lack of it. It means that he is weak and fully dependent on God.

As we saw at the beginning, he is pressing God for a response.

The phrase, “You are my help and deliverer” is a statement of his faith in God. And he wants God to be this for him now.

Invitation

The Psalm ends with him still waiting. And because of this, it is an excellent prayer for us when we are going through trials and difficulties, waiting on God to come through for us.

Are you waiting on God? We saw the psalmist’s situation, what is yours? I would like for you to make this prayer your own this morning. I have given you a handout with the words of the Psalm, except the specific situation of the writer is left blank. Would you write in your concern in that place?

Then I will give you a chance to come to the front to be anointed with oil and to receive special prayer. You need not tell me anything, I will simply pray for you along the lines of the Psalm. God, who knows your concern, will hear and respond. Would you come this morning?

————-

Psalm 70 – Outline

 (To the choirmaster. Of David, For the memorial offering.)

A. Request for haste: Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!

B. Regarding those who seek his life: Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them turn back because of their shame who say, “Aha, Aha!”

B. Regarding those who seek God: May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

A. Request for haste: But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!

William Higgins

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Our text today is often called the parable of the two sons. I think parents with teens will relate to it. It’s about a father trying to get his kids to do chores. One kid is rude about it and the other doesn’t do anything.

But in all seriousness, it’s an important Scripture because it gives us a very clear understanding of what God wants from us.

It comes right in the middle of a fairly long confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem – the chief priests and the elders of the people (21:23). And this is the first of three parables intended to give them a message.

First, let’s work at –

Understanding the parable

Jesus initiates this stage of the conversation with a question. v. 28 – “What do you think?” They had just refused to answer a question he posed, but as we will see in what follows, this parable forces them to answer him.

Now before we move on, let me say here that in some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament the order of the two sons is actually reversed. So if your Bible has this you will know what is going on. For instance the older New American Standard Bible. I am using the ESV as always.

The first son. v. 28 – “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’” The word translated as “first” can also mean “older,” as in the oldest son. Some translations take it this way.

“Sons” is actually the word for “children.” And when the father says, “son, go and work,” it is actually “child, go and work,” a more affectionate way of putting it. He is asking him to do some work on the family farm.

v. 29 – “And he answered, ‘I will not.’” The son’s response is rude and disrespectful. In its culture this would be seen as rebellious and unacceptable. And it’s a real contrast to the father’s affectionate address to him.

The story goes on, v. 29 – “but afterward he changed his mind and went.” Although he said no, he does work.

The word behind the phrase, “changed his mind” can also be translated as ‘he regretted it’ or ‘he thought differently about it,’ or even ‘he repented.’

This part of the parable has some connection to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, the only other parable of Jesus that involves a father and two sons. The first son here is quite similar to the prodigal son. And both show us what repentance looks like. They changed their minds and acted differently.

The second son. v. 30 – “And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir.’” This is a very respectful answer, in contrast to the first son’s words to his father. The word “sir” is actually the word for ‘lord’ or ‘master.’

v. 30 – “but did not go.” He said yes, but he was full of hot air.

Now let’s look at –

Jesus’ interpretation

v. 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.’”

  • From this we see that the father represents God.
  • The first son represents the tax collectors & prostitutes. They said no to God initially, but when they heard the message of the kingdom, they changed their minds and began to do God’s will.
  • The second son represents the chief priests & elders. They said yes to God, but when they heard the message, they did not act.
  • And most likely the vineyard represents Israel – the people of God.

The point of the parable is clear. Those who refuse God but later repent and obey, like the first son, will go into the kingdom. And they will go in before those who say yes, but don’t obey God, like the second son. (Indeed the leaders won’t get in at all unless they repent.)

Jesus gives his strong affirmation to this lesson when he says, “Truly I say to you.” He is saying, ‘take note!’ ‘This is absolutely the truth.’

Finally, notice how Jesus forces them to answer. The only possible answer to his question is that the first son did the father’s will. Yet the first son undeniably represents well repentant sinners – those moral outcasts that these leaders looked down on.

And the leaders look very much like the second son, in that they did not take heed to the message of the kingdom. So they, in effect, condemn themselves.

Now this parable can be applied quite broadly, but in this context Jesus applies it specifically to –

John the Baptist’s ministry

– the subject of the argument at this point between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem.

v. 32 – “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” Even though they had said yes to obey God, they did not believe John was from God. So they didn’t do what he said.

Although John came in the way of righteousness, that is, he was righteous and preached a righteous message from God, they rejected him.

v. 32 – “but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” Even though they had said no to God, they believed John and repented.

Finally, Jesus says, v. 32 – “And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Even after they saw others respond, they rejected him, and would not change their minds about him, and heed his message of repentance. They blew it twice with John, just like they were blowing it with Jesus as they spoke with him.

Lessons for us

1. We learn what God wants from us. God wants us to believe and respond to the message of the kingdom. And how do we respond? We are to respond by obeying God. To say it another way, God is looking for a change within that leads to obedience; so that we come to do our heavenly father’s will, instead of ours or anyone else’s.

This is the bottom line of what God wants from us.

2. Don’t be the second son. As Christians we have said “yes” to God, and so we are reminded in this parable that we need to come through on our commitment. We need to make sure we are working in the vineyard, doing God’s will; using our gifts and doing all that God tells us to do.

Now, the second son echoes Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Both use the address of “Lord,” and both don’t obey the will of the father. And both are, as Jesus interprets the parable, excluded from the kingdom of God. (Davies & Allison)

This is a word to us not just the ancient leaders of Israel. We must come through on our commitments to God.

3. Don’t be self-righteous. We need humility so we don’t become like the leaders of Jerusalem.

Think about it. Who are the ones who will never repent? Rank sinners? No. There’s a chance for them. The ones who will never repent are those who think they don’t need to repent; who don’t see the need; who think they are in the right.

Paul says, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” – 1 Corinthians 10:12. This is a warning for us. You never get to a place where you can’t receive God’s message to you; where you don’t need to be open to repentance.

4. The gospel is great news for sinners! So if you are here today and you have sin in your life – I mean even really bad sin; you have made terrible and shameful choices – it isn’t too late.

You haven’t done God’s will so far? Jesus teaches that you can change your mind! You can have a change within so that you believe the message and start to obey your heavenly father. It isn’t too late.

And if there is anyone here today who wants to do this very thing I invite you to come forward . . ..

[Note: This is not an example of the first and the last from 20:16. In this last verse the first and the last has to do with equalization, not reversal – both the first and the last were made equal.]
 
[Note: Literary structure of the parable.
A. Question/two sons: What do you think? A man had two sons.
B. First son: And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.
`B. Second son: And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.
`A. Question/two sons: Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

William Higgins

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