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“The Better of Two Bad Sons” Matthew 21:28-32

06 Jun

The parable comes in response to the question the chief priests and elders asked Jesus as He taught in the temple, Matthew 21:23 (NIV)  Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus refused to answer their question directly since they declined to answer His own question concerning the source of John the Baptist’s baptism.

Yet this parable provides an indirect answer, as is shown by the connective “but” which begins it. This parable is presented as a vivid pictorial challenge to the Jewish leaders.

In Matthew 3:4-6 we find a first group responding to the message of repentance by John. But they came to John after their change of mind and regret for their sinful way of life. They feared that the Messiah would have nothing to do with them.

Matthew 21:28-32: “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ {29} “And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. {30} “The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. {31} “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said^, “The first.” Jesus said^ to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. {32} “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”

A father had two children growing up. In this parable we have two children who had not yet carved their caregivers nor made any final choices.

THE FATHER’S INVITATION: “Son, Go work today in the vineyard,” is a marvel of tenderness and reasonableness:

  • It is IMPARTIAL, being addressed to both alike; it is loving and tender, being prefaced by a term of endearment, “Son.”
  • It is REASONABLE, since nothing could be more proper than for a son to work in the vineyard he himself may inherit;
  • It is SPECIFIC, not any vineyard, but THE vineyard being indicated;
  • It is URGENT, work being required not tomorrow, but today;
  • It is NECESSARY, because without work which was commanded, the vineyard would perish.

All of these characteristics of the father’s command have an application today in God’s command, or invitation, for men to work in his vineyard, the church.

The children must recognize the field is still their father’s although they are called to work in it. “Son, go work today in my vineyard” (Matt. 21:28).

These two children were of the same father and yet they were so different.

The family laws made the father the absolute head over his children. The man in this parable represents God, while the two sons represent, respectively, the “sinners” (or outcasts among the Jews) and conservative Jews.

THE FIRST SON’S RESPONSE: “I will not.” This is typical of the response of publicans and harlots whom Jesus made the heroes of this parable. Theirs was an open, frank, rude rejection of the Father’s command.

This should not be glamorized. Some are tempted to do so, boasting that they do not attend church, having no time for such things, are not the religious type, etc.; and, although frankness has merit under some conditions, there can be no merit on the part of that son who wounded a loving father, rejected an altogether reasonable commandment to work in the vineyard, and who flouted the father’s authority.

He refused to accept any responsibility to honor and obey the one who had given him life, nourished him in infancy, supported him in weakness, and who was entitled to his respect and obedience. All who refuse to serve God in his church are guilty of the same thing.

He voiced the instant inclination of his flesh. Tell a child to do something or go somewhere and the likely answer will be “I don’t want to.”  “Afterward he repented and went.”

How much afterward? In Greek the adverb implies not immediately afterwards, but toward the end of the thought process. It has more the meaning of “finally.”

THE SECOND SON’S RESPONSE: The second son said, “I go, sir,” but went not! Such a response was proper and correct as far as it went.

The fact that he was a smooth hypocrite who did not follow his profession with valid obedience cannot negate the correct nature of his verbal response. He said exactly what he should have said. His later failure cannot change the righteous character of his words.

Those who profess to serve God are right in such a profession, and it ought to serve as a stimulus to perform deeds consistent with it. In the parable, the second son’s response represents that of the Pharisees and their crowd who professed a holiness they would not exhibit

These religious leaders saw only too well that Jesus was referring to them: Matthew 21:45-46: 45When the high priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was talking about them.  46Although they wanted to arrest him, they were afraid of the crowds, for they considered him a prophet.

The meaning of this parable is crystal clear. The Jewish leaders are the people who said they would obey God and then did not.

The key to the correct understanding of this parable is that it is not really praising anyone. It is setting before us a picture of two very imperfect sets of people, of whom one set were none the less better than the other.

Neither son in the story was the kind of son to bring full joy to his father. Both were unsatisfactory; but the one who in the end obeyed was incalculably better than the other.

The ideal son would be the son who accepted the father’s orders with obedience and with respect and who unquestioningly and fully carried them out.

But there are truths in this parable which go far beyond the situation in which it was first spoken.

It tells us that there are two very common classes of people in this world.

First, there are the people whose profession is much better than their practice. They will promise anything; they make great protestations of piety and fidelity; but their practice lags far behind.

Second, there are those whose practice is far better than their profession. They claim to be tough, hardheaded materialists, but somehow they are found out doing kindly and generous things, almost in secret, as if they were ashamed of it.

They profess to have no interest in the Church and in religion, and yet, when it comes to the bit, they live more Christian lives than many professing Christians.

We have all of us met these people, those whose practice is far away from the almost sanctimonious piety of their profession, and those whose practice is far ahead of the sometimes cynical, and sometimes almost irreligious, profession which they make.

The real point of the parable is that, while the second class are infinitely to be preferred to the first, neither is anything like perfect. The really good man is the man in whom profession and practice meet and match.

Further, this parable teaches us that promises can never take the place of performance, and fine words are never a substitute for fine deeds.

The son who said he would go, and did not, had all the outward marks of courtesy. In his answer he called his father “Sir” with all respect. But a courtesy which never gets beyond words is a totally illusory thing.

True courtesy is obedience, willingly and graciously given. On the other hand the parable teaches us that a man can easily spoil a good thing by the way he does it.

He can do a fine thing with a lack of graciousness and a lack of winsomeness which spoil the whole deed.

Here we learn that the Christian way is in performance and not promise, and that the mark of a Christian is obedience graciously and courteously given.

The Change of Mind Which Means Repentance

The word most commonly translated “repentance” in the New Testament is derived from “after,” and “to think, perceive.”

It means to change one’s mind, which involves an instantaneous change of heart, a regret for unbelief and sin, and a determination to change direction.

This is what both John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2) and the Lord Jesus preached: “Repent: for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).

Real repentance results in the forgiveness or removal of sin.

This is not the word used in Matthew 21:29: “ … but afterward he repented and went.”

The Greek verb here is the passive participle, derived from “after,” and “to care or show concern for oneself.”

It means to regret, not because one feels he has done anything wrong but because something did not turn out to his own advantage.

A thief when caught regrets stealing not because he has concluded that stealing is a sin, but because he was caught. Such a person, however, has not become moral if he does not steal anymore.

One represents moral change in an individual while the other is a convenient, selfish change of behavior and regret.

This verb is the verb used of Judas in Matthew 27:3, “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he [Jesus] was condemned, repented himself and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.”

A prophetic application

The first son or child represents the Gentiles who were expected to say “no” at the beginning but in the end said “yes,” and are now ahead of the unbelieving Jews:

Romans 10:18-21 (ESV)
18  But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
19  But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
20  Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
21  But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

The second son is representative of the Jewish nation. Jesus was of their own nationality. “Yes” was the immediate response expected, but then they changed their mind about Jesus and this
change became disastrous (Rom. 9:1-10, 18).

God is not yet through with the second son who will change his mind again and say “yes” (Rom. 11).

Why did the publicans and the harlots enter into the kingdom of God before the Pharisees, or, as was generally the case, WITHOUT them? The reasons are plainly given in the word of God: (1) The class composed of publicans and harlots were conscious of sins, whereas the Pharisees were not, as shown by Luke’s account of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9ff), indicating that no sin is greater than being conscious of none.

(2) The publicans and sinners heard him (Luke 15:1), but the Pharisaical class refused to hear.

(3) They believed him (Matt. 21:32). (4) They repented. (5) They were baptized (Luke 3:12; 7:29,30). If the Pharisees had been willing to do this, they too might have entered into the kingdom. In the very next words, Christ shows how they failed.

Why would the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven instead of the religious leaders? Jesus explained why in this verse. The total rejection of John the Baptist (and his acceptance by the less-esteemed members of society) spelled out their rejection (or acceptance) of the one John proclaimed—Jesus, the Messiah. Even when the religious leaders saw how lives were changed at John’s preaching of the way of righteousness, even as they saw what happened when these sinful people repented and believed, these leaders still did not believe John. Neither, then, would they believe Jesus.

A personal application

Your initial response to Christ may be a “no.” Change your mind and be blessed.

Was your initial response a hurried “yes” without sufficient thought?

Have you found that no fruit has come from your flippant “yes”?

Change your mind by allowing the gospel to take root and bring forth fruit.

 CHANGED MIND
True beliefs are responses tested by time. Each of the sons in Jesus’ story responded immediately to their father’s request. As it turned out, their first answers were meaningless. Each changed his mind. What they finally did and said mattered most. Jesus faced his detractors with a blunt application. Those considered farthest from God (prostitutes and tax collectors) were boldly embracing his grace. Meanwhile, those most familiar with God were rejecting the promised Messiah. Jesus didn’t close the door of the kingdom to the religious leaders, but he challenged their assumed citizenship. Four lessons flow immediately from this story:
1. Those who accept or reject the gospel too easily will be tested.
2. Regardless of how we came to Christ, our present state of obedience indicates our spiritual health.
3. People who resist the gospel may be closer to conversion than those who are familiar with it.
4. Where God is at work, we dare not jump to conclusions.

 

 

 
 

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