Two Sons

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Proper 21

Pentecost 19

Ordinary Time 26

9. Two Sons

Matthew 21:23-32

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?" 24Jesus 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. 25Did 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?' 26But 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.

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.' 29He

answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went.

30The father went to the second and said the same; and he

answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. 31Which 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. 32For 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."


In the current vernacular people speak of those who "talk

the talk" in contrast to those who "walk the walk." Those who

"talk the talk" are persons who recognize a problem and analyze

the situation. They may rant and rave about the difficulties and

the need for change. They make accusations against those whom

they believe to be responsible for the situation. But they do

not move to action to do anything about it nor do they assume

responsibility themselves for the existence of the problem when

they may be somewhat responsible for it.

Persons who "walk the walk" identify with the people who are

in need. They do not simply talk about the situation. They join

with the people in need to take action and do something to meet

the needs and change the circumstances which create the problem.

They assume responsibility and proceed to act.

The parable we deal with today puts into story form a

somewhat similar distinction. The son in the parable who said

yes to the request of the father to work in the vineyard but did

not do it "talked the talk" but did not "walk the walk." The son

who refused the father's request but later changed his mind and

went to work in the vineyard "walked the walk."


Context of the Church Year

We are in a series that would afford an opportunity to do

five parables in succession if one so chose to do it. This is

the third of the parables, with two more to follow. This parable

and the next use the imagery of workers in the vineyard, as did

the parable for the previous Sunday.

Context of the Gospel

The parables for today and for next Sunday are in Matthew

21. They follow an increasing crisis of conflict between Jesus

and the religious leaders. They raise questions about his source

of authority. He counters with a question about what they think



the authority of John the Baptist. They knew that if they said

it was on his own authority, they would alienate the common

people among whom John was very popular. If they granted him to

have authority from heaven for his message, they could not very

well deny Jesus the same authority.

The parables speak to the question of authority and call

into question those who have the position of formal authority but

do not necessarily carry it out in practice. Others may not have

an office, but they perform the function which should be

appropriate to the office.

The First Lesson. (Exodus 17:1-7) The people quarreled at

Rephidim because they had no water to drink. Moses understood

this to be a test of the Lord. They objected because they thought

Moses had brought them into the desert where they and their

livestock would die of thirst. Moses was then advised to go

ahead of the people to Horeb where he struck his rod against a

rock. He did so in the presence of the elders and the water

flowed forth. That was the answer to the question he had posed

as to whether the people were testing the Lord.

The Second Lesson. (Philippians 2:1-13) Paul asserts the

authority of Jesus. The key is found in v. 9 where Paul, after

describing the servant role of Jesus, says, "Therefore" and

proceeds to assert his cosmic authority. He calls the

Philippians to faithfulness in accepting the authority of Jesus

over their lives.

Gospel. (Matthew 21:23-32) The passage gives the parable

of the obedient and disobedient sons.

Psalm. (Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16) The Psalm ties together both

the first lesson by reference to the events in Egypt and the

Gospel lesson by pointing toward the technique of Jesus in using

parables to make clear his teachings about the kingdom.


Context of Related Scripture

Isaiah 5:1-7 Ä The song of the vineyard.

Amos 6:6-8 Ä Justice, not sacrifice, desired by the Lord.

Micah 6:6-8 Ä What the Lord requires beside sacrificial


Matthew 7:21, Luke 6:46 Ä Saying Lord, but not obeying.

Luke 3:12-13 Ä Tax collectors admonished by John the


Luke 7:37-50 Ä How Jesus forgave a prostitute.

James 1:22-25 Ä Faith demonstrated by works.

1 John 3:18 Ä Love not in word or speech, but in real


Content of the Pericope

The parable is unique to Matthew. The brief parable raises

three important issues:

1. The significance of repentance that leads to obedience to

God's will. The first son changes his mind. His actions are

more important than his initial response.

2. The greater receptivity for change among those who are

obviously sinners Ä tax collectors and prostitutes Ä than among

those who are professional religionists. A sense of need is more

likely to lead to repentance than a sense of already having


3. The kingdom is open to all. Entrance into the kingdom

is not so much on the behavior or actions of the past or on

profession of readiness to obey, but is dependent on readiness to

act in obedience once the call is received. The readiness to act

in response to God's will is evidence of true repentance.

Precis of the Parable

The owner of a vineyard had two sons. He told the first son

to go and work in the vineyard. The son was rebellious and at

first said he would not do it. Later he had a change of heart

and actually did go to work.


The father went to the second son. He told him to go to

work also. The second son seemed to be compliant. He said he

would. But he never showed up in the vineyard. Jesus does not

say whether his failure to do the father's bidding was because of

rebellion, thoughtlessness or sheer laziness.

When Jesus asked his opponents who was the true son of the

Father, they had to agree that the son who actually obeyed

despite his first refusal was, of course, the real son. The one

who seemed to be more compliant but did not do what he said he

would was not the true son.

Jesus then makes application to the present situation, both

in his own ministry of finding the tax collectors and prostitutes

responsive to his call to repent and enter the kingdom and in the

response to the preaching of John the Baptist.

Thesis: Repentance leading to obedience is more important

than profession without corresponding deeds.

Theme: What counts with God is right action.

Key Words in the Parable

1. "Think." (v. 28) Jesus signals that he has something

important to say. He wants his hearers to pay attention and

consider the implications of what he is about to relate as it

applies to the controversy at hand.

2. "Vineyard." (v. 28) As noted in an earlier parable, the

vineyard imagery was already used in the Old Testament as the

place where God calls his people to labor with him in the midst

of the world. It is where his sons and daughters work in order

to receive the reward of his kingdom.

3. "He Changed his Mind." (v. 29) Repentance means a

change of direction. It is more than just being sorry for past

behavior. It means now moving to do what earlier was refused.


4. "Sir." (v. 30) The term indicates respect for the

father. The actual term in the Greek is kyrie which normally

would be translated Lord. This is the euphemism used instead of

God at that time. It clearly indicates that Jesus intended the

father to be an image of God. He indirectly implies a judgment

against those who too easily mouthed the expression but did not

translate it into real understanding and submission to God's


5. "Kingdom of God." (v. 31) This is not a typical

expression for Matthew. He usually referred to the kingdom of

heaven. To refer to the kingdom of God would be more typical of

the term used by Luke.

6. "Ahead of You." (v. 31) "You" refers to the opponents

of Jesus who used flattering address yet really were seeking to

trap him. They wanted to find a reason to accuse him of some

religious error. Their questions were not sincere in seeking to

understand him and respond to his message.

7. "The Tax Collectors and the Prostitutes." (vv. 31 and

32) The tax collectors and the prostitutes would be the

stereotypical images of persons whom everyone would assume to be

sinners and disloyal to God. They are chosen to make the

contrast as graphic as possible for the hearers of the parable.



1. Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy. The parable of the two sons

would seem to come down on the side of orthopraxy (right action)

as opposed to right teachings or doctrines (orthodoxy.) The son

who seemed to reject the father's request but did the work is the

one who is right. In the context of the situation in which the

parable is placed, the people who had been obvious sinners were

more approved than those whose major occupation was to study and

teach the religion. It is not enough to know the right ideas or


doctrines. They have to be acted upon. Indeed, it is probably

true that right doctrines are not really understood until they

are put into practice.

2. True Repentance. Some people seem quite ready to say,

"I'm sorry," if they fail to do something or if they do something

that is wrong. Nevertheless, they continue in the same habits.

A person habitually ran behind schedule, showing up late for work

assignments, for committee meetings, in submitting reports. Each

time the person would say "I'm sorry." What was wanted was not

apologies but performance. True repentance does not mean only

asking to be excused for behavior; it is only true repentance

when a change in practice accompanies the apology.

3. Life Witness. A strong Christian witness depends on

integrity between the profession of faith and the life of the

believer. The hypocrisy of those who claim to be followers of

Christ and the denial of it in their life styles is one of the

main obstacles to persons coming to a church or for young people

to leave the church. A life lived as a serious attempt to accord

with the example and teachings of Christ is one of the strongest

invitations to others to become followers of him as Lord.

Without the joining of faith and works which flow from it, the

appeal to others is hollow.

4. No Sinner Excluded. Jesus in his ministry was open to

all persons. He saw people in sin not as persons to be avoided,

condemned or rejected. He saw them as people in need and he

acted to meet the need. He did not judge them according to the

label given to them by his society but according to their

potential when redeemed by the grace of God. He was more

impressed by the possibilities of those with obvious needs, such

as the tax collectors and the prostitutes, responding with

repentance and a changed life than those who thought themselves

already to be religious.

5. Resolving Conflicts. People use a variety of mechanisms

for resolving conflicts, some more useful than others. The


chief priests and the elders in this instance tried confronting

Jesus. Confrontation may be a useful mechanism if persons are

interested in resolving the conflict. In this case they were not

interested in a genuine attempt to deal with the conflict but

were seeking to trap Jesus so they could arrest him. He uses

another mechanism when he expanded the conflict by introducing

the question of the authority of John the Baptist. This is

sometimes called issue proliferation.

The chief priests and the elders chose another mechanism at

that point. They decided to avoid the conflict. Jesus tried

another mechanism. He challenged them to change their minds. In

a dispute where people have differences of religious beliefs,

ideologies, philosophies, or values, a conflict can only be

resolved fully by some party having a change of belief. When

people come to agreement, they use the mechanism of

reconciliation in which the parties achieve unity and no conflict


In the case here neither was willing to change and so the

conflict was postponed and came back later in a worse form. The

leaders decided to use the mechanism of elimination of the

opponent. Only, as we know, it did not really resolve the

conflict because of the resurrection of Christ.

Homily Hints

1. Creeds and Deeds. (vv. 28-30) Here the issue is not

whether or not works lead to salvation. The issue is whether

belief is real unless it manifests itself in action which follows

from it.

A. Belief Expressed in Words

B. Belief Expressed in Works

C. Validating Words with Works

2. The Changed Mind. (vv. 29, 32) How does a person come

to a change through repentance? Develop the stages of the



A. Acknowledging Need. A person has to acknowledge

wrongdoing before repentance occurs.

B. Rejecting the Past. A person needs to give up behaviors

which may have seemed satisfying and satisfactory previously.

C. Turn to the New Future. A person becomes a new person

when empowered by the Holy Spirit to move into the future as a

new beginning.

3. The First in the Kingdom. (v. 31) Contrast the

conventional views about who is a good person with the way Jesus

would give priority.

A. The World View. Those who lord it over others, who

control and dominate, are usually looked upon as number one.

B. Jesus' View. Jesus gives priority to servanthood as the

measure of who is number one.

C. A Reverse Priority. The kingdom of heaven goes contrary

to conventional wisdom about priorities.

D. Your Response

4. True Children of God. (vv. 28-32) The question to each

person by this parable is whether we identify ourselves with the

first son or the second son.

A. The Demand of Obedience

B. The Claim of Sonship

C. The Real Test in Behavior

5. Talkers and Doers. (vv. 28-31) Some people talk about

needs. Others proceed to meet the need or solve the problem.

Some people are so busy doing many things they never stop to ask

if they are meeting real needs or doing the most important thing.

A. All Talk, No Action

B. All Doing, No Reflection

C. A Rhythm of Talking and Doing



Points of Contact

1. Many people live with tension between what they hear and

confess in church on Sunday and how they respond to pressures

other days of the week. They can be challenged to ask whether

they show they are sons and daughters of the Father in the daily

work and walk.

Children show their kinship to their parents in many

physical characteristics. Christians show their kinship in how

they behave. Their character should conform to the God they have

seen in Jesus Christ. When it does, they are children of God and

it shows.

2. The church should have a different appreciation of people

than what the usual standards of the world are. A church needs

to ask if it would be embarrassed if certain persons would be

included in its membership. The background of the person should

not be a barrier to membership. A church that only finds persons

of a certain socio-economic status or a particular ethnic and

racial heritage acceptable is not answering the question which

Jesus posed to the chief priests and elders. It would seem that

even the test of assent to a particular creed is not the crucial

question. The criteria suggested are the actions that show a

willingness to obey God's will as they understand it and to do

God's work to which they are called.

3. People need to be confronted with the question of what

authority Jesus has for them. If they acknowledge that Jesus is

Lord as well as Savior, their lives should show it in their

actions. They should be doing the work of the kingdom he

proclaimed and lived. The final test of the acceptance of the

authority of Jesus as coming from heaven and not from human

sources is in the conformity of life and works to his commands

and example.

Points to Ponder

1. Does the church spend too much of its efforts and

attention on those who have already committed themselves to


Christ? Should it rather seek out those who are sinners in need?

Jesus did not invest most of his time with the religious

community. He reached out to people in need and invited them to

come into the kingdom. Does this parable challenge the church

today to do likewise?

2. Who is the good person? Jesus did not seem to be much

impressed by the status of persons. He was more concerned with

the direction of their movement. Tax collectors or prostitutes

who were trying to change the direction of their lives were given

more approval by Jesus than the religious leaders who had high

social status. Is the process of change in life more important

in judging who is a good person than where the person happens to

stand at a given moment?

3. How do people change? Two factors may be most effective

in bringing people to change. One is an awareness of some

inconsistency between their present value system and what they

come to realize is a better one. The second is the presence of

role models which they come to accept as a better example for

them to emulate than they find in their own lives. Can we

attract them to change by confronting them with the highest

values embodied in the kingdom of God and giving them living role

models which show what Christ can mean as a model to emulate?

4. How do you make faith operational? What one person

described as "stratospheric theology" needs to be translated into

understandable terms for the laity. It is important to think

seriously and carefully about the Christian faith. It is more

important to demonstrate it in daily living. Is the end of

theology just to have correct ideas about the important issues,

or should it be to issue in a living that helps fulfill the

prayer "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven"?

5. The chief priests and the elders were very careful to

observe all the proper rituals and ceremonies. How do you

prevent such religious practices from becoming ends in themselves


and a substitute for a dynamic religious life that permeates all

of a person's actions? How do you make the rituals and

ceremonies not an empty formalism but a preparation to say yes to

the request of the Father to work in his kingdom?

Illustrative Materials

1. Down and Outers or Up and Outers. Eugenia Price began

her Christian ministry working among the alcoholics and homeless

people on the south side of the Chicago loop, the so-called "Skid

Row." Later she lived on the near north side of Chicago, the so-

called Gold Coast. She observed that it was harder to bring the

"up and outers" of the Gold Coast to Christian commitment than it

was among the "down and outers" of skid row. She might have

paraphrased Jesus by saying that the alcoholics and homeless

would go into the kingdom ahead of the socially elite and

business personnel of Chicago.

2. Perform or Resign. Ryne Sandberg was an all-star second

baseman for the Chicago Cubs. In mid-June 1994, he suddenly and

unexpectedly resigned. The year before he had signed a four-year

contract for $28 million. He had over three years yet to go on

the contract, which meant he could earn $18 million more just by

continuing to play. No one was pressuring him to quit.

Sandberg quit because his batting average at .238 had

dropped over 50 points from his lifetime average of .289. He

also had lost some of his enthusiasm for playing. He said, "I am

not the type of person who can be satisfied with anything less

than my very best effort and my very top performance... And I am

certainly not the type of person who can ask the Cubs

organization and the Chicago Cubs' fans to pay my salary when I

am not happy with my mental approach and my performance."

3. Think! Someone has observed that five percent of the

people think; ten percent of the people think they think; 85

percent of the people would rather die than think.



A speaker at a conference observed that the only thing

harder to open than the plastic pack of peanuts given to

passengers on an airline is the human mind to a new idea.

4. Preaching or Social Action. The debate was over which

was more important: Proclamation of the word in evangelism and

missions or doing relief work and developing and working for

social justice. A pastor said, "They are like a pair of pants:

Singular at the top in the Gospel, but plural at the bottom in


5. Faith Expressed in Works. A young pastor and his wife, a

nurse, worked in a fairly conservative inner-city church. Many

people in the congregation did not like his liberal theology.

They could not, however, fault the couple because of the way in

which they showed a deep concern for the problems and needs of

the people in the neighborhood. He worked hard to try to find

jobs for the church members. He visited them in their homes. He

organized activities for the young people. His wife visited the

sick in the community and offered help when they were

incapacitated. Both were much respected and held in affection by

those to whom they ministered unselfishly.


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