Scripture: “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Matthew 21:28-32 ESV
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Observation: Recapping Friday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), the chief priests and the elders (the governing body, also known as the Sanhedrin) question his authority to teach the law. Similar to the religious leaders’ earlier passive-aggressive inquiry, they pose a question intended to incriminate Jesus. But he shrewdly navigates their trap with the promise to answer their question if they first answer his: Was John’s baptism ordained by God or man? After deliberating about the unfavorable consequences of either answer, they approach Jesus and tell him they do not know (i.e., by whose authority John received baptism). So per their agreement, Jesus refuses to answer their question.
Today’s reading is found only in Matthew. As Matthew recalls, Jesus further questions the religious leaders by telling them a parable that begins with the query, “What do you think,” an expression that would give them a reason to suspect that what Jesus will say next is aimed at them. Then, similar to The Parable of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32, click here to read), Jesus tells a story of a father and his two sons, the first of whom rebuffs the father but will eventually come to his senses, repent, and do the right thing. In contrast, the second is quick to say yes but is a no-show.
So Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” With their correct response, “The first,” Jesus contends the tax collectors and prostitutes (those the ruling elders despise) will enter the kingdom of God before them. And he explains that these marginalized children of God listened to John the Baptist, believed, and repented—unlike the Pharisees and scribes who came to assess John the Baptist solely to ascertain whether he was a threat to their authority and the nation’s stability under Roman occupation.
Takeaway: Jesus uses the imagery of a vineyard as he often does. Being one of the more crucial crops, the setting for this parable harkens to other judgments spoken by revered prophets of ancient Israel’s sordid history of rebellion, such as Jeremiah 2:21-37 (click here to read) and Hosea 10:1-15 (click here to read). And as the Old Testament writers directed their words toward those in positions of authority and power, so here Jesus accuses the Sanhedrin of giving only pretense to seeking God’s will with external obedience while in their hearts saying, “No, I will do what I think is best”—even to the point of condemning the Son of God to death by crucifixion.
Our takeaway? No matter our history of rebellion and sin, the invitation to join him now in kingdom building comes with the blessing that we also will bear fruit as we labor. Our part? Believe and repent. And the Holy Spirit will help us each step of the way, for repentance demands we turn away from sin toward obedience to Christ, who, with the Father, has prepared fruit-bearing work for us (Ephesians 2:10, click here to read). And as we more consistently trust and obey him as laborers of his kingdom, he makes our paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6, click here to read) with fewer roundabouts. Indeed, he saves us from squandering time, energy, and resources on the circuitous path of sin.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who always did your will and hence took the straight path to Calvery. We confess, though, that we are slow learners who tend to revisit sin and rebellion. So would you please help us to follow your Holy Spirit’s lead in quickly turning toward obedience when we part the paths of righteousness so that we might do our part in growing your kingdom in ourselves and others? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling