The Parable of the Two Sons (Matt 21:28-32)

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later changed his mind and went. “then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first”, they answered.

The parable of the two sons is deeper than it appears. On the surface, it is a polemic against those who feign religious fielty but are not faithful the tenets of the faith. In this parable, Jesus is specifically referring to certain Pharisees and Scribes who put on a show of faith, without the deep, underlying commitment that God requires. Tax collectors and prostitutes, by contrast, who accepted the teachings of John the Baptist and repented of their sins and practiced the tenets of the faith are, in this parable, viewed by Jesus as doing the will of God.

More generally, the parable is a criticism of those who intend to do God’s will but who do not. Moreover, Jesus exalts those who obey especially when such obedience is against their own desires. In this understanding, the teaching is that God does not look at the motivation behind one’s obedience. It is enough, insofar as this parable is concerned, that one obeys. Intending, promising, or appearing to obey but not doing so, is still disobedience. Likewise, not wanting to obey but obeying nevertheless is counted by Jesus as obedience. In other words, motivation and intention, good or bad, is not constitutive of faithfulness.

A related text is Peter’s three denials of an association with Jesus (found in all 4 Gospels!). First, Peter insists he would never deny the LORD. His intention is pure and earnest and we have no reason to doubt him. But, when the rubber meets the road he reneges on his promise to Jesus. Here, Jesus does not take Peter’s history of good intentions into account. He still requires Peter to acknowledge his transgression and beg forgiveness. Of course, Jesus then forgives him.

Now, go and study

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