In Matthew, as the last days of Jesus approach, the battle lines are drawn in Jerusalem. I am always facinated when I read this part of the story. Jesus has been spreading love, healing the sick, and is viewed as a prophet by the crowds of people. As he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds cheer and honor him and praise God. He goes into the Temple, throws out the hawkers who are trying to take advantage of people, and sets things right. The religious leaders are upset. They want to kill him, but are afraid that the people will rise up if they make their move. People from around the Roman World are gathering in Jerusalem for Passover.
Jesus tells the religious leaders a story.
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the Father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they [the religious leaders] answered.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
If there was ever a warning about being religious, but missing the whole point, this is it. Someone can be religious and say the right things to God, but still be disobedient to his whole purpose, and go to hell. Our good deeds do not save us, but our self-righteousness certainly doesn’t save us. The point Jesus was making here was more to the leaders, showing them that they were not righteous. There can be no repentance before there is a realization that one needs to repent.