Jesus uses a family drama to offer some hard teachings about faithfulness, and he gives us a snapshot of life in the church and the world that is just as applicable now as it was then.
In this parable, just as in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus dresses up some hard teachings in a story about a father and two sons. In this case, we have a father of some means, who owns a vineyard. He goes to both sons, at different times, and says, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” One says, rather insolently, it seems, “No,” but then ends up going, anyway. The other says something like, “Right away, sir!” but doesn’t go.
Jesus then asks the deceptively simple question, which of the two did the will of the father? There is more to the answer than his interlocutors might want to know — more, for that matter, than we might want to know.
The story, in context, is a kind of an answer to people in the immediately preceding scene who are questioning Jesus’ authority. Jesus has just “cleansed the temple,” driving out various moneychangers and businessmen, people selling items for sacrifice and people exchanging the coin of the realm for the currency used in the temple. Under the operant rules of the temple, these merchants have a perfect right to be there, doing what they’re doing. They are regulated, so that they do not overcharge or take advantage. Yet, Jesus has driven them out, exclaiming, in a paraphrase of the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”1
When he returns the next day, the chief priests and the leaders in charge of temple operations want to know by what authority he does things like this. By way of an answer, Jesus tells them three parables, of which this tale of the two sons is the first. We all know Jesus just loves to speak in symbols and parables and stories. What is this one getting at? What is this all about? Who is this all about?
We have a vineyard. We have a man of sufficient means to own a vineyard. The man has two sons. The father makes what seems to be a reasonable request of both sons. The request is that the sons — or at least one of them — go and work “in the vineyard.” Apparently, there is not a whole lot of work to be done in the vineyard, no particularly hard labor, but work that only requires the specific labors of one son, and the father only goes to the second one when the first one refuses. Verses 28 and 29 deal with that first son. This is the one who willfully and insolently refuses his father to his face. What he says, in effect, is, “I’m not going to do what you told me to do.” But then he changes his mind and goes ahead and does it. We are not told what led him to change his mind. We can only infer.
Why does the first one refuse? What makes him so sullen and belligerent? We are not told, specifically, but it’s still a legitimate question; a question that needs to be asked. So… Why? Could it be that he feels like he’s being asked to do something that isn’t his job? Or perhaps it’s not his turn? Perhaps he feels that an unfair demand is being made upon him? Or perhaps he just doesn’t feel like working in the vineyard today. Why does he say no? Who knows? Whatever the case, he does change his mind. He has a change of heart. He goes to do what he was asked to do.
Verse 30 deals with the second son. He says, brightly, cheerfully, “I go, sir!” But he doesn’t. What about him? What leads him to change his mind — or did he change his mind? Did he ever have any intention of going in the first place? Or does he get distracted by something else? Does he just forget? Jesus doesn’t tell us. The important thing is … he doesn’t go. He reneges on doing the will of the Father.
Which is the more admirable of the two? Which of the two, when all is said and done, is the more insolent and disobedient? Why? Which is the easier of the two to deal with — the one who is all bright and cheerful to your face, and then goes and does whatever he wants to do, or the one who is sullen and belligerent, but apparently has a change of heart? And where might his change of heart lead?
We might want to take a closer look at this vineyard, the landowner/father, these two sons and what they each represent. Jesus isn’t, of course, just spinning a yarn about a father, his two sons and a vineyard. The vineyard could represent the kingdom of God, and that is likely the case, but it could also represent a part of God’s kingdom, any part of God’s creation. That part could be the church, or any entity or place where there are people. The two sons are children of the kingdom — or people in the church, or people in the world. And the father? The father is the owner of the whole shebang: God, of course.
These two sons — well…they are us! Yes, this is us, this is who we are, this is what we look like to God. The first son — he of the peremptory “I will not!”— seems to respond in the moment, out of some frustration or feelings of being put upon. We have already looked at possible reasons why he responds so negatively. The first son is sullen and belligerent on the face of it; surly, hard to deal with, maybe a little intimidating, and rebellious at first. But he ends up doing what the father asked him to do.
The second son — he of the cheerful “I go, sir!” who never does get around to going — he is the one who listens carefully, perhaps with a somewhat vacant expression, to what you say. He smiles and nods and agrees with what you say, and carries on like he’s on your side, but then acts as if you had never spoken to him at all. What is his problem? Forgetful, perhaps? So absorbed in multi-tasking that he never gets around to the task that matters?
The two sons might for our purposes be sons (or daughters) of the church — or sons and daughters of God whom we would (or ought to) love to bring into the church. One gives the impression of being sullen and hostile — but ends up serving in the vineyard, the church, doing exactly what is asked. He gives the appearance of being the most reluctant of members, or the most unlikely of potential converts, one ready to split at any moment, one who isn’t going to take orders from anyone — or perhaps one who feels overworked, unfairly put upon. He is, after all, the first one the father goes to. He’s had it with being told what to do … whatever! But after he cools off and thinks about it for a while, he goes off to do what was asked, what is needed.
The second — the one who smiles and nods — he’s the one who puts on a show of piety, takes on all the trappings of religion, or perhaps he’s the potential member who really isn’t interested but who makes a show of listening to get rid of us that much quicker.
In verse 31, Jesus takes a provocative, inflammatory leap. He says that tax collectors — collaborators with the occupying power, people who are the picture of degrading and decadent disobedience — and prostitutes — people living outside of moral society — are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the good religious folk, simply because they recognize, and respond to, those who come to them as true representatives of God. They are that first son: disobedient on the surface, but nevertheless the Gospel seeps into their hearts and they end up marching into the kingdom ahead of those who put on a good show.
Now where might we fit into this vision of vineyard/kingdom/world/life? Who are “you” in this story? Are your defenses up? Are you feeling put upon? Is there something about life in the vineyard that you find yourself resisting? And how about the people you would like to reach? Do the people you reach out to put up a defensive, hostile front? Don’t judge that book by its cover; don’t give up hope. The Word that you bring has a power of its own. Perhaps you can remember the times of your own hostility. The people who seem hardest to reach could very well be the ones who will enter God's kingdom as soon as you turn away. And your own times of resistance could be a threshold to your greatest breakthrough.
1 Matthew 21:13