Matthew 17:23-32 – Parable of the Two Sons

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco

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 replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“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. (New International Version)

The people entering God’s kingdom may not be the ones we expect. 

That’s because God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. The spiritual insiders are really on the outside, while the spiritual outsiders are the ones inheriting the kingdom.

Today’s Gospel parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious to beware, lest their energies be spent entirely in correctness, believing the right things, and making obedience to Christ of secondary importance. 

This parable also encourages moral failures with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

That’s because talk is cheap. Only what one believes, one will do.

Lip service to God, without loving service, is hollow and means nothing.

The Warning: Don’t Assume

Christ’s parable warns those who arrogantly assume they have an inside track by their belief, when in reality they aren’t obeying God, at all.  It’s a bit hard for us to imagine how offensive this story was to the religious authorities of the day, so here is a restatement of the parable in a more contemporary form:

What do you think? There was once a man well-respected in the community. He had two sons. The one son grew up and also became a respectable member of the community. This son was a successful businessman, and willingly gave a lot of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque on each of the light poles with his name on it. 

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

One day the father said to him, “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 so that I can get away.” “I will not,” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he had spoken to his father and decided to go to his place of business and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father also went to the other son, the well-respected one, 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.”  However, that son did not follow through and go do the tedious work. 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 church leaders and people listening, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they all answered.

Then, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard hundreds if not thousands of sermons about grace and the true way of righteousness, and you did not believe by putting the Word of God into practice; but they did. And even after you saw how grace can transform a life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that it could get him killed – and it did. Simply believing the right things and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was assumed they were on the outside and could never come to God, much like some might believe it unthinkable that a Muslim terrorist could be saved by Jesus. 

The proof of genuine belief is not in talking a good line; it is in actively obeying God when no one is looking to see what a good person you are.

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

1 John 4:20-21, CEB

The Christian life hinges on obedience to the words and ways of Jesus. It is to be a blessing to a lost world in need of the grace and love of God.

There was once a Pastor in the 1890’s, Pastor Wright, who pronounced from his pulpit and wrote an article for his denomination’s newsletter on how people flying was both impossible and contrary to the will of God.  Pastor Wright had two sons named Orville and Wilbur. The Pastor was so sure of himself, but he was surely wrong.

The Invitation: Walk Through the Open Door

This parable is more than a warning; it is also a story that opens a door of grace and mercy for unlikely people, far from God, who have said “no” to God. It is a wonderful invitation for all us screw-ups and people with little to no faith to come to Jesus, and he will give rest.

One of my favorite Old Testament references is from the life of David. It is rather obscure and tucked away where no one notices it in Scripture. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was trying to capture him, even though he had done nothing wrong:

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. These were the men, referred to later, as David’s mighty men, people on the cutting edge of bringing Israel into prominence. 

Jesus, Son of God, Son of Humanity, came and clearly identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me.
    He has chosen me to tell good news to the poor.
He sent me to tell prisoners that they are free
    and to tell the blind that they can see again.
He sent me to free those who have been treated badly
    and to announce that the time has come for the Lord to show his kindness.” (Luke 4:18-19, ERV)

In Christ, there is no lost cause and no person too far to be rescued and redeemed. And if we believe that, we will participate with God’s desire to reach the outsider.

Conclusion

Practicing the words and ways of Jesus happens when we locate ourselves within this parable. For the true outsider, this is the most wonderful news possible – that Jesus is reaching out and bringing you to himself – that changing a “no” to saying “yes,” entry to life is possible. 

Yet, maybe some of us need to locate ourselves as the insider who needs to get a clue before we miss out on the grace of God in Christ.

Take heart, for Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. It is time to act on what we believe – to affirm truth and right doctrine, and to embody it with obedience to God’s call on our life.

Matthew 7:7-11 – Ask. Seek. Knock.

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So, if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him. (New Living Translation)

In the dog days of summer, and the long season of Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, it is good to be reminded of what it is we need to keep doing without giving up.

At the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issued a warning about the pitfall of failing to persist in a trusting relationship with God. We are to have an ongoing dynamic of asking, seeking, and knocking.

We might too often neglect to ask, seek, and knock because we rely on our own determination, abilities, education, or observations. The action of the three action words is a reference to prayer. The idea is that it is difficult to live a virtuous life, so we must continually ask, seek, and knock to receive an answer.

The demands of Christian discipleship are significant. Throughout Christ’s Sermon, he not only dealt with the outward actions of a follower but also the inward state of the heart.

Humility, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace characterize the inner person who walks in the way of Christ. Not only is murder wrong, but the bitter anger which it produces is to be dealt with. Adultery is also a violation of God’s law, along with the impure thoughts and intents of the heart which bring it about. Love for enemies, giving from the heart, praying with appropriate motives, fasting in secret, and building treasure in heaven are all expectations of the devout Christian believer.

These are inner attitudes and outward behaviors which require a constant stream of asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of heaven. They are more than natural abilities; what Jesus is looking for is to live a supernatural life. This, then, requires supernatural resources.

“I am the door, and the person who enters through me will be saved and will be able to come in and go out and find pasture.”

Jesus (John 10:9, NCV)

No one enters God’s realm because of sheer determination. God’s kingdom is only accessed through humble prayer. God is the One with the supernatural resources to help us live the Christian life.

And God is pleased to provide what we need to live that life. The Lord answers in love and not begrudgingly. Out of the infinite storehouse of grace, God delights in hearing our asking’s, responding to our seeking’s, and answering our knocking’s. With God, there is no daydreaming while we ask, no avoiding us when we seek, and no pulling the shades as the door is being knocked.

In love, God looks forward to our asking, seeking, and knocking.

The key takeaway from today’s Gospel lesson is repetition – not vain repetition which believes that the more prayer is repeated, the greater possibility of the answer we want – but a routine lifestyle of persistently and consistently praying.

Ask

You want things, but you don’t get them. So, you kill and are jealous of others. But you still cannot get what you want. So, you argue and fight. You don’t get what you want because you don’t ask God. Or when you ask, you don’t receive anything, because the reason you ask is wrong. You only want to use it for your own pleasure. (James 4:2-3, ERV)

James, learning from his brother, Jesus, gets behind the asking to the heart of why we ask and why we do not ask. This, in no way, is to discourage us from asking or to be doubtful whether God cares about our asking, or not. James also said:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways. (James 1:5-8, CEB)

Seek

If you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29, NIV)

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6, NRSV)

Prayer is much like a wrestling match. It requires a great deal of effort. In fact, every good thing in life demands blood, sweat, and tears. We are to keep on seeking, to continue searching and looking for God amid our life circumstances. The Lord will be found.

Knock

God has said, “When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.” (Isaiah 58:9, GNT)

The balance to the continual searching and diligently seeking is the immediate answer to our knocking on heaven’s door.

And God has also said, “I will answer their prayers before they finish praying.” (Isaiah 65:24, CEV)

It is to God’s glory whether our prayers are answered quickly, or not. It is to our glory that we exercise our own ability to enter God’s throne room and ask, seek, and knock. We have the assurance that whatever the answer is from God, it will always be a merciful response.

For God mercifully gives us what we ask for, and also mercifully does not give us what we ask for.

We do not know what tomorrow may hold for us. All we know for certain is that we are known by a God who hears when we ask, is worth seeking, and answers when we knock.

O God, you are my God, early and often I will seek you. New are your mercies every morning, O Lord; and great is your faithfulness. Pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace. Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.