Jesus’ Parable of the Two Sons

From Psalm 78:

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

This Sunday’s gospel reading (Proper 21, year A) is often divided into two sections in most Bibles, but they’re actually part of one longer encounter between Jesus and the priests & scribes which extends into next week’s reading as well.  What’s going on here, in chapter 21 of the Gospel according to Matthew, is that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey in triumphal procession, he has chased the moneychangers out of the Temple court, and has been teaching nonstop.  The people are at the height of their enthusiasm for him, and the priests are at the height of their concern and jealousy.

So at the beginning of today’s passage, they approach Jesus and ask “by what authority” Jesus is teaching.  Less formally translated, they were asking him “who said you could do this?”  In short, “stop it!”  And even if Jesus were to try to answer, he’d be trapped into getting himself into trouble before his time.  If he said he was teaching by God’s authority, he’d be accused of blaspheming and usurping the authority of the priests.  If he said he was teaching by his own authority, he’d be discredited before everyone just as horribly.  So from the start, the priests are setting this trap to shut Jesus up.

But Jesus, as usual, sees through this ploy, and turns it back at them with another question – by whose authority did John the Baptizer teach?  The priests, likewise, recognize the trap (because John had been popular with the people), and ‘plead the fifth,’ so to speak.  So they’ve reached a stand-off.  Neither side can answer the other’s question without being drawn out and exposed to public scandal and be completely discredited.  But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that…

Battles of words and power-plays aside, though, Jesus gives them another opportunity to understand where he’s coming from.  He asks them more personally “what do you think?” (v28).  And he goes on with a parable to explain what was going on with John’s teachings and his own teachings: the Parable of the Two Sons (verses 28-32).  A father own a vineyard and asks his two sons to go work in it.  The first son refuses to go, but later changes his mind and works.  The second son says he’ll go, but doesn’t follow through.  “Which son did the will of his father?” Jesus asks.  The priests answer, “the first son.”

Now the priests have unwittingly condemned themselves.  For, as Jesus goes on to explain, the first son is like the sinners/prostitutes/etc. who were at first opposed to God, but now (thanks to the preaching of John & Jesus) are repenting and following God.  The second son, then, is like the priests/scribes who claim to be God’s people but aren’t actually doing God’s will – they’re hypocrites.  What’s worse is the way that the second son responds, “I will do it.”  In Greek grammar (like many European languages) the pronoun “I” is not required, because the verb itself implies who the subject is.  So when “I” is written (as it is here in verse 30), it’s there for emphasis.  The son is trying to claim the credit and favor without actually having to do the work!

In verses 33-46, Jesus goes on to offer the parable of the wicked tenants – where another landowner is trying to collect his earnings on his land from the workers, but they keep beating up the messengers he sends, and when he sends his son, they kill him.  This is another picture of how God has sent prophets to his people, who only mistreat them, including getting John beheaded, and predicting that Jesus, too, will die.

So that’s what’s going on with the text.  What, then, can we draw out from this to learn from?  Jesus uses this parable of the two sons to illustrate two ways certain groups of  people have dealt with God – one who start out disobedient but repent, and one who start out with the right idea but prove unfaithful.  St. Jerome, an early Bible translator & commentator, made the interesting observation that the first son is like the Gentiles and the second son is like the Jews.  The Gentiles, after all, were not initially part of God’s chosen people, but once Christ came, they started flooding into the Church.  Many of the Jews, on the other hand, did not recognize their own Messiah, and thereby proved unfaithful to God.  On one hand, this can be a misleading thing to say, because there certainly were many Jews in the Early Church – it was founded by Jewish people after all!  On the other hand, this is an historical trend that we can see popping up throughout the Bible.  Just think of how many stories there are in the Old Testament involving two sons – one who is faithful and one who is not!

These two ways of dealing with God also show up in individual Christian lives, too.  The first son shows us the need for real conversion, and the second son shows us the danger of taking faith for granted.  Our other two readings give us pictures of aspects of these things.  The reading from Philippians 2 illustrates how sinners can be transformed in following God – by copying the humility that Jesus portrayed they become more like him.  The beginning of  Exodus 17 illustrates how God’s people took him for granted – by grumbling for water and not trusting in God to provide for them they revealed their lack of faith.

Sure, things get complicated when you take into account those of us who were raised as Christians; I don’t mean to say that a dramatic conversion and repentance story is required for authentic faith.  Moreso, the lesson here is that we are to be faithful according to God’s calling, and humble according to his example.

With that in mind, I’ll close the way I began – with an apt excerpt from Psalm 78.

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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