by Robert H. Albers
Gospel: St. Matthew 21: 28-32
The Parable of the Two Sons, like the previous two parables considered is peculiar to the Matthean tradition. Given its Matthean setting—the confrontation between the chief priests and elders with Jesus over his authority (21:23-27)—the poignant and powerful point of the parable is made in 21:31 with brutal force. This perspective again affords a glimpse into the nature of the Kingdom of God and underscores its radicality when juxtaposed with the expectations of religious convention.
With relative simplicity, the parable presents the scenario of a father who asks each of his sons to labor in the vineyard. The first responds negatively initially, but then repents or has a complete change of heart and goes to work. The second with lip service acknowledges the request and accedes, but does not follow through on his promise. The indisputable answer to the question posed by Jesus concerning which of the two did the will of his father is obvious. Actions speak louder than words, and empty words are synonymous with broken promises. The climax of the parable is reached in 21:31b with the shocking statement that tax collectors and harlots enter the Kingdom of God before you. This prioritization of the sinful outcast over those in the religious in-group adds great irony to the story. Given the prevailing attitudes of the day with its religious and social consciousness, it might have been less offensive to be excluded entirely rather than be in second position behind those who were despised.
The intent of the parable seems clear. C. H. Dodd notes that the parable is “clearly a comment on the rejection of the word of God by the religious leaders, and its acceptance by the outcasts, as the evangelist represents it.” 8 The hymas in the Greek text of 21:31 refers to the religious leaders who were the antagonists of John and Jesus, while both John and Jesus are represented as being protagonists for the repentant tax collectors and harlots. From the statement in 21:45, the intent of the parable found its mark, for the religious leaders perceived that Jesus was in fact talking about them.
It seems safe to assume that 21:32 is an editorial addition. The behavior of the religious leaders does not parallel the behavior of either son. The leaders are not portrayed as refusing the request and repenting, nor did they initially accept the invitation and fail to follow through. Jeremias contends that the verse has been attached by association since the subject matter held in common by both verses is that of the tax collectors and harlots. The formula “Amen, I say to you...”—which normally signals the end of a parable or saying—appears in 21:31 followed by the principle point of the parable. The redactor’s hand seems evident as Jeremias notes that, Again we are confronted by the fact that a parable whose original purpose was to vindicate the good news (God’s invitation, rejected by you, has been accepted by the despised ones, hence the promise for them!), has in Matthew, through its relation to the Baptist, received a soteriological application which is utterly foreign to it, and is akin to the soteriological interpretation of the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen and of the Great Supper in Matthew. 9
The interpreter and preacher is faced with a choice of emphasis. It is clear that for Matthew the soteriological emphasis and linkage of the message of Jesus with that of John the Baptist—which results in the religious folks rejecting it and the non-religious folks accepting it—seems to be central.
Significant in this parable from another perspective is the fact that when it comes to the life of discipleship, people often honor the Lord with their lips while their hearts and manner of living are far from that expected by the Master (cf. 15:8). Once again with the element and shock of surprise, the parable gives one a glimpse into the nature of the Kingdom of God with all of its radicality. Those who would otherwise be judged as outside the pale of salvation because of their rejection of the outward form of religion may in fact be those who are most sensitive to their need for radical grace and thus repent and serve the Master most meaningfully. This same strange and surprising way of God is lifted up in the second portion of the Old Testament reading for the day in which the ways of God and the ways of God’s people stand in stark contrast (Ezek 18:25-32).
The temptation for the reader/listener is to identify with the first son in the parable. However, for many whose vision of discipleship is limited to outward conformity to custom and religious ritual, the point of identification may more logically and painfully be that of the second son. Lip service which is an outward mouthing of polite promises and pious platitudes is empty by comparison with the inward acceptance of the message which prompts people to repentance and action. Curiously enough such action often occurs without them even being aware of it, as Matthew suggests in 7:21 and 25:31-46. The interpreter of the parable is once again confronted with a kind of literary O. Henry’s twist as the tables are turned by the radical claim of the Kingdom’s message. It might be noted that the tenor of this parable is on the same track which is continued in the next parable wherein the second son might be equated with the disposition of the tenants.
8 C. H. Dodd, The Parables, 93.
9 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963) 80.
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