Why we do something is truly more important in the grand scheme of things than what we actually do.
In these three parables in Matthew 21 & 22 we see Jesus making a statement about the religious community of the day and their eligibility for the entering the Kingdom of God.
If He was basing it on obedience alone, the Pharisees and other religious leaders would have been first in line. They obeyed the law. They obeyed it so religiously that they put the law ahead of the God who spoke the law.
Quite frankly, this is not hard to do. The law is tangible in human terms. We can wrap our minds around the law. We feel better about ourselves when we follow the law. It fits our self-importance that we earned something by our own efforts.
God, however, is beyond our grasp. He is bigger than our understanding. We cannot earn anything with Him by our efforts or craftiness.
God cares about our heart. He cares about the why, not just the what.
The religious that Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 21:31-32, 43, 22:8 had the outward acts down. They seemed obedient, but their hearts were in the wrong place. Their motives were wrong. When the motives are wrong then even right actions become corrupted.
In this first parable, the first son had no intention of working in the field. His words and intentions matched. They were not right, but they did line up. However, something changed in him. His motive shifted and it caused his actions to follow.
The second son, said all the right things, but didn’t follow through. His motives were selfish in saying, “Yes,” because it made him look good in the moment. He likely figured an excuse after the fact would work better than one before allowing him to not do the task and still look good. Similar to the old “forgiveness vs. permission” mentality.
Verse 32 gives us the insight into the point Jesus was making here.
“32 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.” (Matthew 21:32 NIV84)
They rejected “the way of righteousness” because John’s message called their hearts and motives into question and didn’t commend them for their actions. Jesus then uses two groups of people who were highly despised and written off by polite society as examples of those who accepted the message of truth.
It really is easier for someone living life away from religion to accept the radical message of life change that Jesus proclaims than it is for those steeped in religion. It’s easier to change when the motives and actions are both wrong than it is when the actions are right but motives are wrong. It is not as far to step to see the need for Christ.
It’s not just action, it is motive that matters. If our motive is right, we can fix our actions to bring them in line upon the revelation of truth. If our motives are wrong, it is harder to adjust because we tend to focus on the actions because they are tangible and seen by others.
The right motive for us to obey God’s Word is to glorify God because we love Him and are grateful for His love.