The Parable the Two Sons

columns inside the Church of St. James the Less

Matthew 21 records Jesus entering Jerusalem, and in so doing, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah. He enters to praise by the crowd, and He begins healing the sick and the blind. However, the chief priests and the scribes grow indignant at the crowds following Jesus around, and they rebuke Him for their praise. Jesus dismisses their criticisms, and He then continues on to Bethany.

The next day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem, and, after more signs and teachings, the priests pressure Him on the authority by which He speaks. Jesus turns the question back on them, asking them about the baptism of John — was it from God or man? The priests fear the consequences involved with answering either way, so they do not respond. Jesus then tells them this parable beginning in verse 28:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 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. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”

Back in Matthew 3, we see exactly this. Many of the poor and disenfranchised responded to John’s teachings, but the spiritual leaders reject him as they would later reject Jesus. John and Jesus taught many immoral and dishonest individuals to mend their ways, but most of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees refused to let His message touch their hearts.

Repentance Versus Self-Righteousness

The application of the parable then is clear. In general, the types of individuals who would become tax collectors in this culture or prostitutes are people who have already rejected God’s law in their lives. They have already turned their backs on God and have responded, “I will not go.” But their repentance then demonstrates greater faithfulness than those who profess righteousness but keep their hearts far from God.

In Romans 11:13, Paul writes that he hopes the faithfulness of Gentiles will provoke some of his former brothers to learn more about Christ. He compares this to grafting branches from a wild olive tree to one that’s already part of an orchard. Don’t both share the same root? And, if the root is holy, should all the branches not also be holy? Paul warns that branches that fail to produce will be cut off — even if they are part of the original tree. In other words, we cannot trust in past faithfulness for future righteousness.

In this process, we can see both God’s grace and His judgment. He is willing to forgive the past, but He will also not allow the past to cover current unfaithfulness. As in the parable, no matter our disobedience before, we can come to God in humble repentance for forgiveness. However, if we turn from our confession of faith, God will separate us from Him.

Doers Versus Hearers

In James 1, the apostle there warns us to be doers of the word, not just hearers. The older son in this parable was a hearer of the word. He gave lip service to the father, but he did not follow through with those words. The second son, though he initially rejected the father’s word, became a doer of the word. He put his love of the father in action, and his example is for all of us. Are you a hearer of the word, or are you a doer also?

What is your answer to the Father’s invitation to serve in His vineyard? Will you accept the invitation and immediately get to work? Will you resist? If you have ben resisting, are you ready to relent and work for the Father? He is always ready to invite you with open arms into His family of believers.

lesson by Ron Phillips