We continue this series by looking at a second example of a parable from Jesus to uncover how it reflects his teaching to serve God faithfully, not successfully.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of 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 after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32)
Like The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector we looked at in the previous post, this parable is another brief but straightforward tale that contrasts the words and actions of two people in the same setting. Unlike it, each person in this parable has the same general status— sons of the same parent.
The parable is easily relatable as all the characters are in the same family, needing to work on the same goal of carrying out the family chores. Each son is given the same command. The only difference is in their response. One of the sons initially refuses but ultimately complies with his father’s command while the other says he will do what the father has asked but then never does.
Jesus’ question at the end is telling as to what spiritual life lesson this parable is meant to elicit. Jesus did not ask who was being saved or going to hell. Jesus also did not ask which of the two were more moral. He simply asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The Greek word thelema used in that verse that is translated as “will” is used elsewhere in Matthew. It is part of Jesus’ model prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10; emphasis added). Later Matthew uses the word as the key difference in God’s judgment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21; emphasis added).
Too often, Christians have reduced the phrase “God’s will” to a particularized nuance instead of its primary meaning. We often use “God’s will” to refer either to some futuristic puzzle God has pre-ordained that we need to figure out, or to some fatalistic explanation for a situation whether it ended well or not. But “will” in these instances simply means desire— “Which of the two did what their father desired?” Our journeys can take on whole new understandings if we remember that God’s will is simply asking, ”What does God desire?”
The context of the passage reveals Jesus is asking the question to “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matthew 21:23) while in the Jerusalem temple during the final week of his life. The phrase is one of several in the Gospels used to denote the Sanhedrin Council which was located in Jerusalem and functioned as the supreme religious authority for the Jewish people. Its membership came from aristocratic Jewish families and included both Sadducees and Pharisees, the two most dominant sects of 1st century Judaism.
When the chief priests and elders answer that it is the first son who carried out the father’s desire, Jesus connects the dots for them to produce the big twist. He tells these council members (those held in the most esteemed religious positions and believed to be the most pure and worthy before God) that those they had deemed unclean and had cast out of their society (“tax collectors and the prostitutes”) were going into the “kingdom of God” ahead of them. (Wow! Yeah, that’s pretty much another one of those drop-the-mic moments by Jesus. And let me be absolutely clear here. Jesus, who is a practicing Jew, is not saying that because they are Jews but because of the way He believes they have misused their position.)
Jesus then explains how this happened. John the Baptist was for these chief priests and elders like the parable’s father, giving the same command to everyone, including those who had been deemed unclean and outcasts. The council members could have been like the first son, change their minds and believe what John was proclaiming. But instead, they continued to act like the second son, telling God daily they will do what God desires but then never doing it. This is not a new charge by Jesus. Nothing seemed to upset Jesus more than religious leaders who sacrificed at the idol of their own successfulness.
(Jesus) said to (the Pharisees and the scribes), “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8)
Again, Jesus’ point here is not who gets into heaven and who goes to hell. It is the difference between doing what we decide to do for God (striving for success) and yielding to what God desires (living faithfully). This is how one enters “the kingdom of God.” But it only happens if we “change (our) minds and believe” (21:32).
This parable also illustrates one of the faults in success-based spiritual living. It can lead one to discriminate against those thought of as lesser instead of seeing them as equally capable of being faithful.
We are all characters in this parable, all in the same family of God, all needing to perform the daily work God desires. Each of us is a child to whom God gives the same command. The only difference that matters is in how we will respond.
Reflection: When God nudges, do you tend to say no but later relent, or do you say yes knowing all the while you will go your own way?
Next post: The Parable of the Good Samaritan