Matthew 21:28-32 – The Parable of the Two Sons

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santangelo

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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. (NIV)

I once cheated on a college exam. It was a required class for which I was not much interested, so my grade was rather tenuous going into the final exam of the semester. When the professor stepped out of the classroom for a few minutes during the final, my fellow students began sharing answers. I gave in and went with the others.

I got an “A” on the exam and passed the class easily. However, I royally flunked God’s test. After a few days of misery, I went to the professor’s office and confessed what I had done. I was prepared to take a failing grade for both the exam and the class, yet I think the professor was so shocked that I would come and admit such a thing that he worked up my grade right there in front of me… I passed, but just barely.

I originally said “no” to what was right, but then said “yes” and made it right.  For those who practice repentance, there is a God of grace waiting for them. God also has no tolerance for those who profess truth with a big “yes” on the outside but are passive-aggressive on the inside and say “no,” undermining the truth by how they live. 

Today’s Gospel lesson highlights entrance into the kingdom of God – and the people entering might surprise us. Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders end up as the ones who really inherit the kingdom.

Christ’s parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious: Beware, lest our insider energies be spent in correctness, conformity of belief, and cockiness rather than following Jesus.  At the same time, the parable encourages outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Christ was warning those who arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will. It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive this story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost.  He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful.  He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”  There was nothing spectacular about this son.  In fact, he lived an ‘alternate lifestyle’ and people murmured behind his back. 

One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.”  But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, and the religiously different with esoteric beliefs are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did.  And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that, frankly, it got him killed. Specifically, the scandal is this: Merely believing rightly and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time.  It was assumed they were outside of God.

Affirmation of Faith by Indian painter Jyoti Sahi, 1986

However, the proof of genuine belief is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead! Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

If we have ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark. If we have eyes to see, there are people caught in addictions standing in front of us. If we have hands willing to labor, needy folks surround us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Honestly, I am heartsick over the grinding loneliness of so many people; the boatloads of shame which thousands secretly carry; and the silent pain experienced by individuals everywhere. I feel this way because I genuinely believe my Lord feels the same. Jesus is looking to activate grace through his people to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that opens the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

Jesus went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed. Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call.

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