In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus asked, “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 he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the second 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 Pharisees and elders answered, “The first.” Then Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Every time that I have read this parable in the past, I couldn’t understand why Jesus rebuked them after their answer. Were they wrong? Did they pick the wrong son, and if so, then why was the second son the correct answer?
I wrestled through this as I read through it, relating it to the Israelites all throughout the Old Testament who said they had chosen, and would obey, God, but then went off and served idols and Baals instead. But this time, I got it – I understand! It helps to read the Old Testament, also, for Jesus’ parable can be compared to the event in 1 Kings 20:38-42.
In Matthew, the Pharisees and elders didn’t answer incorrectly. The reason Jesus rebuked them was because they didn’t even do what they believed and knew was right. Therefore, their own belief/judgment judged against them, for they believed one thing, but did the other; they favored the first son, but were themselves the second son.
When you think about it though, this isn’t a new dilemma; God’s people have always been as the 2nd son, and even continue to be so today. Look, for instance, at Joshua 24:15-28. All God’s people chose God and His ways, but even shortly after Joshua’s death, we begin to read as a common theme, “The Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight,” and “In those days, there was no king in Israel; All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
Even today, both Jews and Christians continue in this way. Many Jews don’t have anything more to do with God than their traditions and celebrations. Many Christians also behave as the 2nd son, for they give their lives to Jesus, but then have nothing to do with Him (many claim that Jesus’ grace covers their sins, allowing them to continue in their sinful ways. But this is actually a heresy against the Gospel of Jesus Christ). It’s like they start off saying “Yes Lord!” and “I give my life to you, Jesus!” But when it comes to their behaviors, they’re giving Jesus the middle finger.
Like these Pharisees and Elders, God’s people are called to Holiness and complete obedience to God. But instead, even many today continue to say one thing and do the other – they claim the name of Jesus Christ in their words, but claim the name of Satan in their actions. So Jesus rebuked them. I have known people like this. They claim the name of Jesus in their words, but have nothing to do with Him in their behavior. Today, many of them are further away from the Lord than they were before they came to know Him…second sons.
I understand the first son to be the person who stays away from God most of their lives, then one day gives Him a chance…the non-believer who one day accepts and comes to know Jesus Christ, then obeys Him all of their days after. This son, in Jesus’ parable, is the tax collectors and prostitutes, and whom Jesus says will inherit the Kingdom of God before any of the Pharisees or Elders.
So which of the 2 sons are you? Do you practice what you believe? As Christians, we’re called to be Holy, obedient to God, and to represent Jesus Christ to the world who doesn’t know Him. Nobody wants to be like the Pharisees, but yet so many are, they just don’t realize it (or they’re in denial). What do you believe? How do you respond to what you believe? Which son do you represent? And according to this parable, how will Jesus respond to you?