Ordinary Time 26
9. Two Sons
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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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.