Parable of the Two Sons

Ordinary 26A

Matthew 21: 23 – 32


The text assigned for this week is Matthew 21: 28 – 32 which is the Parable of the two sons. For our purposes, we would be helped by including the short interaction recorded by St Matthew before the parable.

The setting is Jerusalem, into which our Lord had made a triumphal entry only a day or two before. The presence of Jesus in the city is widely known and is causing a distinct discomfort to the Jewish authorities.

An overview of the reading by Ronald Cox

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 23 – 27 (Paraphrased)

Jesus, fully aware of the electric atmosphere he was walking into entered the Temple precincts. This was the Court of the Gentiles where he had every right to be and to teach. From all accounts his rabbinic teaching sessions were very well attended. After waiting for a good crowd to assemble before him, a committee of senior clergy and lay elders arrived on the scene in the style of an august tribunal, with due formality and unmistakable authority. It was perfectly obvious to Jesus that their intention was to emphasise their official authority, and his lack of it.

When these uninvited visitors had completed their grand entrance, they rudely interrupted the teaching of Jesus with two questions intended to put him on the back foot:

  • "By what authority are you working the miracles and healings we have been hearing about?"
  • "Who gave you this authority?"

In this "rural" and unsophisticated rabbi the authorities quickly discover they have met more than their match, for he quickly counter-questions them:

  • "I shall ask you one question, and only if you answer it for me, shall I tell you by what authority I do these things."

So far they haven't murmured a sound: it is they who suddenly are on the back foot.

  • "Where was John's baptism from? Was it of heavenly or human origin?"

The authorities step aside to discuss quietly among themselves how best to work their way out of the dilemma Jesus has confronted them with:

  • "If we say of heavenly origin, he will say to us, 'Then why did you not believe him?'
  • But if we say 'Of human origin', we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet."

The authorities are either incredibly nave or, at best, rather pompous, for they think they can avoid the question:

  • "We do not know," they said in reply, meaning (inwardly) they were not prepared to give an answer.

Jesus therefore wastes no time in his dealing with them:

  • "Oh really", he says. "Then you will also not know by what authority I do these things!"

Immediately he follows with another challenge. He is keeping the pressure up on them and, despite their numbers, as we shall see, he remains in full control of the situation.

Verses 28 – 32

This passage opens in a way which demonstrates that it is strategically linked to the prior section (verses 23 – 27). Jesus will not let his protagonists get off as easily as they hope. He quickly begins another challenge by asking: "But what do you think?" He then tells a short parable to draw them out. We follow the N.A.S.B. (1963 edition) and N.E.B. versions which are based on highly respected Greek manuscripts while other versions present the actions of the two sons in reverse order.

  • "A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son go work today in the vineyard'.
  • And he answered and said, 'I will, sir'; and he did not go.
  • And he came to the second and said the same thing. But he answered and said 'I will not': yet afterward he regretted it and went.
  • Which if the two did the will of his father?"
  • They said, "The latter"
  • Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into the kingdom of God before you."

This is a very courageous face to face encounter where Jesus tries to pierce the pride, superior attitude, and cold arrogance of some of the Jewish authorities. The story is used by Jesus as a mirror, to show these hardened senior religious men how they are behaving. The parable is not a condemnation. It shows God as a father setting forth his impartial love for all humanity, righteous and sinful alike.

In the parable Jesus contrasts the attitude of the religious leaders (the "first", who claimed to obey God, but in practice didn't) with that of the tax collectors and prostitutes (the "second", who seemed to reject God's command but actually accepted it).

In the thinking of our Lord, the first group are those who are satisfied with the outward form of godliness and avoidance of open sin. The second are those who are sinners, and know it, and as such are more easily brought to repentance.

Jesus, with this in mind, said to them:

"For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him."

Jesus is emphatic, and means John came preaching God's will about what was right. As we know, in the Gospel of Matthew, John's preaching includes a call for each person to repent and reform their life, for God's kingdom is imminent. In this way, John pointed to Jesus and the higher demands of righteousness for those who would enter it. The religious leaders, however, did not believe what John delivered, even after seeing sinners, whom society considered the most vile, repenting and believing his message.


In the Gospel account we have just considered, "righteousness" incorporates the Jewish perspective of the disciple abiding in Torah (the Holy Will of God as expressed in the Scripture), and Torah treasured as a holy presence abiding in the disciple. This is the source from which one is enabled to perform the will of God, to do what is right. As we have so often alluded to in these meditations, this is God's way of sharing the peace and harmony of heaven on earth; through the right and godly deeds of good people. But this can only be accomplished when we listen to the real message, that is, the truth of God's Word, take it to heart, and put it into daily practice.

There are the self-righteous in all religions, and Christianity seems to excel in the business. There are the people who think they treasure God's Divine Word, yet in fact, pay little real respect to its meaning.

Our Lord's warning is devastatingly clear; yet there are many groups of Christians who are completely unaware of how exclusive, arrogant, elitist, and therefore mistaken they are in their self appointed role to condemn others, who do the things of God differently from them!

We repeat this often because there seems little or no change. We seen doomed to self-destruct! – were it not for the mercy of God.

What applies to ancient Israel, applies also to us.

Psalm 85: 8 – 13

I am listening. What is the Lord saying?
What God is saying means peace
for his people, for his friends,
if only they renounce their folly;
for those who fear him, his saving help is near,
and the glory will then live in our country.

Love and loyalty now meet,
Righteousness and peace now embrace;
Loyalty reaches up from earth
and Righteousness leans down from heaven.

The Lord himself bestows happiness
as our soil gives its harvest,
Righteousness always preceding him
and Peace following his footsteps.

An Overview of Matthew 21: 23 – 32

(From: The Gospel Story, by Ronald Cox.)

Following the resurrection of Lazarus, about two weeks earlier the Jewish leaders had decided that Jesus must die. It would seem that they did not contemplate assassination but arrest and legal condemnation by the supreme council, the Sanhedrin. But Jesus had disappeared, and they did not know where he was until he appeared again at Bethany, the Saturday before Palm Sunday. A new problem now confronted them: all day long, and probably well into the night, he was surrounded by a worshipful crowd. So they spent much time in the council chamber of the temple, planning and discussing how to arrest him. Outside, in the porches of the Gentiles' Court, Jesus continued his mission of healing and instructing, while they plotted evil within.

An imposing delegation comes out from the council chamber: 'chief priests' (Sadducees, the rulers of the temple worship), 'scribes' (Pharisees, the teachers in the synagogues, the spiritual rulers of the people), and 'elders' (the lay aristocracy, members of families of influence and power in Israel). These three classes represented the governing body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. They are not seeking information from Jesus; he has already told them his authority came from God. Their objective is to discredit him with the crowd, to let them see that his activities do not have the sanction of the rulers of Israel.

When our Lord replied with another question, he was following an accepted rabbinical method of discussion. He mentioned John the Baptist because these same leaders had asked John that very question. If they had acknowledged John, then they would have accepted Jesus. *The short parable is concerned with the relations of sinners ('the first') and the leaders ('the other') with John, that strict observer of the law (' following all due observance'). In theory the Pharisees should have welcomed John; after all, the law was their profession.

* Note: This overview commentary is based on the Knox version of the Bible. This version, as do most others, has the reversed order of the sons, compared with the N.A.S.B. (1963) and N.E.B. versions which we have based our meditation notes on. As long as we are aware of this there is no change whatsoever to the meaning of our Lord's teaching.

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