Summary: Right words never exceed right deeds, though it is always best when words and deeds match one another. Jesus’ parable of the two sons urges us to repent of our empty words and to fill them with obedience.
Who Did His Father’s Will?
Jesus’ teaching has many places in it where it is difficult to understand what he means. And, then there are those places where his meaning is clear, but the application what he says is tricky – or so we like to think. We have one of those places in the gospel lesson for today. The lectionary we are following assigns for today’s gospel the parable of the two sons. I have included the verses in Matthew 21 (quickview)  which come before it, because it helps to set the scene for Jesus’ parable.
The larger context of this episode is the last week of Jesus’ life. This is one of many climactic scenes between Jesus and the religious leadership of the Jews, scenes in which Jesus gets the Pharisees and Sadducees put in their place, so much so that they decide the only way they’re going to succeed in thwarting Jesus is to kill him.
But, in one of their last attempts to trap Jesus in some statement which they can use against him, they demand to know directly from Jesus what authority he has to do what he has been doing and to say the kinds of things that he has been saying.
Jesus, of course, puts the question back on them. “I’ll answer your question,” he says, “if you first answer one of mine. Was John’s baptism from God or from the people.” Matthew tells us that they carefully considered how to reply to this. And as they pondered the possible answers they could give, they figured out that they couldn’t actually answer the question without trapping themselves. If they said, “From God,” then they would leave themselves upon to a retort from Jesus – “Then why didn’t you believe him?” But, if they said, “From the people,” they feared the crowds, for the crowds were convinced that John was a prophet sent from God.
So Jesus asks them another question: What do you think? And he tells the parable of the two sons.
The father tells the first son to go work in the vineyard, and the first son says, “No.” Later, however, he regrets this and goes into the vineyard.
The father tells the second son to go work in the vineyard, and the second son says, “Yes.” But, he never goes into the vineyard.
Which one, Jesus asks, did the will of his father? This is one that the Pharisees cannot wriggle out of. The answer is obvious – the first son. Even though he initially said “no,” he later regretted his refusal, and he entered the vineyard. But, the second son, though his words were “yes,” his actions were “no.” Jesus inquired who DID the father’s will, not who SAID he was going to do it.
So, the Pharisees give the only answer that is possible: they admit that the first son was the one who did the Father’s will. And then, Jesus clobbers them.
“Tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the Kingdom of Heaven before you.” Why? Well, they are like the first son – their words and deeds say NO to God’s will, but when John comes preaching, they repent. The Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, they’re always insisting that they were serving God. But, when God’s prophet John comes preaching, they refuse his message. And, to make matters worse, when they see those whom they think are the worst of sinners repenting – they STILL won’t repent themselves.