Q – Hi!
I have a question. One of the passages of Scripture I have never understood came up for my quiet time today. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. I thought maybe you would know. So, the passage is the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32.
Jim – Here’s the parable –
“But what think ye? A [certain] man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I [go], sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of [his] father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”
Most parables have a “key” that will help you sort them out. Look into the context, consider the audience and see what Jesus was responding to.
In this case, Jesus had just finished responding the Pharisees’ question about His authority. He answered by asking them a question. He asked them what authority John the Baptist had; if it was of God or of men. They understood how tricky the question was. If they said it was of God, Jesus would ask them why they didn’t listen to him. If they said it was from men, they feared the crowd that had gathered, because they reckoned John for a prophet. So, they said, “We cannot answer.” And, Jesus said, “Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.”
That’s the context. But, the real key to understanding the parable comes down in verse 45 –
“And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.”
So, this parable – and the one after it – was directed at the priests and Pharisees. They were the objects of His judgment – “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”
So then, we have the necessary information to get to Jesus’ meaning. The sinners (publicans and harlots) were the first son, who said they would not follow God, or work in His vineyard, but afterward they repented and came to Christ.
The Pharisees, meanwhile, are represented as the second son. They, as spiritual leaders in Israel, knowing the Law of Moses and the Word of God, they said they would work in God’s vineyard. But, they did not. They gave lip service, but they would not do the work. Jesus constantly chastised them over this very thing.
Concerning the leaders of Israel, Isaiah recorded,
“Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men; therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.” (Isa. 29:13-14)
So, when Jesus asked them which son actually did the Father’s will, they correctly answered that the first son did – and, they judged themselves (albeit unknowingly) in that statement. They admitted that those who refused God and later repented actually did the work of God. But, those who claimed to do the work of God right from the start, but never actually did it, were not obeying the Father’s directive. The stood accused by their own words – and Jesus used their admission to accuse them.
Then, he followed up with a few words about John the Baptist (the subject of His question) that proved the same point, starting with the word “For…” meaning that what was to follow was an explanation of what went before. It reads –
“For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen [it], repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”
There is Jesus’ own interpretation of His parable – sinners repented when they heard John, but the Pharisees did not. Harlots and publicans heard the message and believed, but the Pharisees did not believe. So, they were guilty by their own admission.
Then, Jesus continued with a parallel parable, making the same point –
“Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast [him] out of the vineyard, and slew [him]. When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out [his] vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.”
Jesus is teaching the same message in both parables and they realized that He was talking about them. He was predicting that they would kill Him, just as they had killed all the prophets before Him. And, they admitted that the Head of the Household would miserably destroy the wicked men when he returned.
Q – Yes, I do finally get this parable! I thought the Pharisees gave him the wrong answer and were condemned for it, but I couldn’t see how saying but not doing was correct. Now I understand, I misread the context. And you explained it perfectly!
Jim – My pleasure, indeed! I’m always happy to hear from you.