Sermon Lesson: Matthew 21:28-32 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.
Full Sermon Lesson: Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSV)
The Authority of Jesus Questioned
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.
Psalm: Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 (NRSV)
God’s Goodness and Israel’s Ingratitude
1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
12 In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all night long with a fiery light.
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
Jesus’s parables should never quite be taken at face value.
Of course, the beauty of these stories – these lessons – is that they can be and the reader or listener can still get meaning out of them. However, if we really want to get to the heart of a parable, we have to understand the Historical Jesus and, quite often, the world and times in which he lived.
The wonderful thing about this particular parable is that its designed as one large insult to the chief priests and elders. Jesus is making a point and a very, very sharp one.
Everyone around him knows what he means, knows who he’s talking about, and yet Jesus has layered his point, his purpose, his constructive criticism inside a parable so many times that no one can prove anything. If they say, “hey, JC, why are you insulting me?” then they admit that they understood the references, that they understood the veiled meaning, and that there is actually something to what Jesus is saying.
If the chief priests and elders (who Jesus is critiquing) say “wait just a moment! we’re not like that”, then they would be admitting that there is an obvious parallel between the parable and real life. They’re in a catch-22.
If you say something, you admit that it’s about you (or at least that the parable could be). You can defend yourself, but there’s no longer plausible deniability.
If you don’t say anything, then everyone can and may and perhaps just will assume that it’s you Jesus is talking about. You have plausible deniability, but you can’t defend yourself.
Of course, in the end, the chief priests and the elders did neither. They came up with some potentially trumped up charges and had Jesus arrested and crucified. Of course, if Jesus hadn’t been right in this critique and many others, then they wouldn’t have reacted quite so badly and extremely to the man known as Jesus of Nazareth.
The Parable at Face Value
We have a man who owns a vineyard. This is typical of the times and location. However, this would have been a family business. Every able bodied man (and perhaps woman) in an extended family at this time would have a hand in keeping the vineyard – well – fruitful (both with grapes for the making of wine and as a working business).
If the vines fail, the family fails. It was as simple as that.
Although vineyards were often successful (wine being in high demand among the Jewish people and their Roman occupiers), the growing of grapes could be precarious. Remember, Galilee is a land of deserts, rocks, and droughts. We know from other parables that competition between fellow vineyard owners and/or thieves was fierce.
To own a vineyard was to always be on guard. You had to get the harvest in during a small window of time (remember mini sermon #20 and the daily wage?). You had to make sure bandits didn’t climb the wall, which meant having a watch tower (if not several). You had taxes to pay to Rome on the very little you earned. You had to ensure that you earned enough to support not only yourself but your children and their families.
And the list goes on and on …
So, we have a man who owns a vineyard and he has two sons. This is very much a family business. The vineyard owner would have married and had children so that he not only had heirs to his name, but also so that he would have workers for the vineyard.
Although the owner is the head of the family, the sons will one day inherit. It is in their interest to do all they can to keep the vineyard thriving. More than that, it is their duty to their father to be good and loyal sons and work in the fields along with the hired labor and any slaves they own.
The vineyard owner asks his two sons to go out and work in the vineyard. This is a normal and expected request. This isn’t 21st century America where a kid expects to go riding his bicycle around Florence with his friends and do something “fun” and “carefree” because he’s a teen and not yet a responsible adult. This is 1st century Palestine where the son – even if he is 16 – goes to work for the father when he’s not in the synagogue on Saturdays.
The two sons have two different answers and then two very different responses from those answers.
To recap, the first son agrees to work and then goes and does something else. He makes a promise and breaks his word.
The seond son refuses to work and then actually decides to honor his father anyway. He breaks faith to begin with, but fulfills the original expectations.
Which one’s better?
The answer (at first glance) is that they’re both lousy choices. You can’t count on the first because he breaks his word, and you can’t count on the second because he blew you off to begin with.
If you think about it though and ignore that gut reaction, then the obvious answer is the second son. Yes, he said “no” to his father’s face but – ultimately – did what was asked of him. Better to get the job done then just have words that it will be done.
At first glance, this parable is a riddle with an answer you have to think about — but there is an answer. However, if you understand what Jesus is actually talking about, who the first son is and who the second one might be, you see exactly the critique he’s getting at… and you can understand why the chief priests and elders would get angry.
The Historical Setting of the Parable
Backing up, Jesus tells this particular parable after being questioned by the chief priests and the elders.
This isn’t a friendly questioning by your Sunday School teacher. This is more of a potential interrogation and the chief priests want to trip Jesus up to get him in trouble.
They feel threatened by Jesus. They are threatened not only by his popularity but by the truth and universality of his message: that God is love and the ‘law of love’ is the only law you must uphold. For the chief priests and the elders, who live and breathe and get paid for the laws God outlined in the Torah, this message – that there is only the law of love – is damaging.
More importantly, it is politically dangerous. If the chief priests and elders were anything, then they were certainly politicians. When they saw the potential of their power slipping from them, they became willing to do anything to halt this possibility in its tracks.
So, they questioned Jesus. They tried to trip him up. When that didn’t work, they got Pontius Pilate to arrest him and shut him up permanently – through state execution (or crucifixion).
We’ve seen this sort of thing happen over and over in history. The idea is to take down an opponent before he (or she) becomes too powerful: cut him off at the knees, as it were.
The problem with Jesus, however, is the power of his message. Even when Jesus is executed and buried, he rose from the dead and his message became more and more popular. Two thousand years later, Christianity – the embodiment of Jesus’s message of love – has over two billion adherents on the planet and is by far the largest religion in the world. If we look at the results, the spread of Jesus’s message and a massive outpouring of faith that is still continuing millennia later, we can see that Jesus was a real and present threat to the chief priests and elders two thousand years ago.
The Unwrapping of a Parable
Coming into the parable in Matthew 21:28, Jesus has gotten into a battle of words, messages, and intentions with the chief priests and elders.
Now, Jesus was the Son of God but he was also living in a political and historical moment. He could not speak as freely as he wanted for fear of political and religious repercussions. Jesus was not at liberty to say everything he wanted to say – at least plainly. He may not have been afraid to speak his mind, but he knew if he wanted to continue his message, the chief priests and elders could have no tangible reason to oppose and arrest him.
(Now, the chief priests got around that in the end with a sham trial and threatening Rome with insurrection if the governor did not arrest Jesus … but Jesus managed to minister to the people of Israel for three years, which was not an easy thing to do considering how revolutionary and radical his message was.)
Sometimes in such a climate, where the chief priests and elders have the power to arrest religious and political dissidents, it is easier to remain silent. But Jesus didn’t do that. He spoke, but to continue his ministry he had to wrap his message in characters and costumes so as to avoid political and legal repercussions.
The first son (the son that promised his father he would work in the vineyard and then refused to) is clearly the chief priests. They were men who made oaths to God, promised to follow his law, and then went off and did what they wanted while pretending to be pious. They were faithless to the God of Abraham and – as members of the religious elite – there was no greater moral crime.
Let us not forget the second son. He refused his father’s wishes but then thought better of it, and went to work in the vineyard. The second son clearly represents the followers (and potential followers) of Jesus. He had tax collectors and prostitutes as friends. He called the simplest of fishermen his disciples. He forgave, in the moments before his death, the Roman guards who crucified him.
These are the people who will enter into heaven. These are the true believers. Yes, they turned away from oaths and became wayward, but they ultimately followed God, ultimately believed in him and followed his true teachings. They knew that God was love.
These teachings were not the myriad of laws and rules and customs that the chief priests and elders followed to the letter. These were not that many laws that no longer held any religious meaning or any true love of God the Father. Instead, Jesus taught his disciples – and us – to love God and to love their fellow human beings.
Remember that God is Love
Love your neighbor; love your enemy. Jesus knew these simple commandments would be difficult. He knew that loving God sometimes was nearly impossible although for him it was as easy as breathing.
But the point is to try. To give yourself over to the possibility of this universal love. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to make fancy promises or recite a creed. You just have to try.
God is love. Believe in Him and the rest will follow.