Matthew 21:28-32 — The Parable of the Two Sons

What parent hasn’t said, “I don’t want you to SAY you will obey, I want you to do it!”  Fathers who know this parable love to use it to teach the meaning of true obedience.  But as we look at the context of our Lord’s teaching on “Passion Tuesday” (the Tuesday before His death), we see this parable was not intended as a parenting tool.

Matthew 21:28-32

28 But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.
29 He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.
30 And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.
31 Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
32 For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.

The Central Idea

In this interaction with the leaders of the Jews, verses 31-32 give the central idea of the parable.  It is about obedience and belief, the need for real service, not lip-service.  Even blatant sinners can find favour with God in repentance and belief, while unbelievers, pious words or not, can not expect to enter the kingdom.

Jesus used two sons, one blatantly disrespectful but then repentant and obedient, and one with right words and wrong actions, to illustrate His point.  He challenged the unbelieving actions of the Jewish leaders despite their religious words.

Some Interesting Aspects to this Parable

My regular readers are used to me saying this :):  if you missed the posts on “By What Authority?” (The Claims of Messiah and Jesus Answers the Question), this will make more sense if you read them first.

Connected to the “By What Authority” Question

Context is important here.  The Jews just asked about Jesus’ authority, and He pointed to John the Baptist, thus claiming that God, through John, had authorised Him as Messiah.  Their authority question merely showed they had not believed John, God’s messenger.  Thus, they feared the question, “Why did you not believe him?”  In this parable, Jesus further confronts their refusal to believe John.

Not Part of the Answer to that Question

Mark and Luke did not include this parable in Jesus’ response, so we know that Jesus’ reference to John’s testimony fully answered their question.  Otherwise, they would have needed to include the parable, too.  This is supplementary to His answer, flowing out of it, but His answer could have stood without this parable.

In Matthew’s Account Only

Matthew’s focus is more Jewish than the others, portraying Jesus as King and Messiah.  Where Matthew differs from the others, there is often an Old Testament link, a connection to / refutation of rabbinic teaching, or a strongly Messianic focus.  In this brief parable, there is an interesting Old Testament connection.

Back to Malachi

The chief priests had Malachi’s prophecy (3:2-3) in view in questioning Jesus.  His answer was on “Malachian” terms (invented word :)), drawing their attention to John, the “messenger.”  He now told a parable with many parallels to Malachi, contrasting an obedient son who serves and a disobedient son who doesn’t.  Their “authority” question, and Jesus’ answer, was based on Malachi 3:1-3, and just after that, we see a son serving and the wicked who don’t — just like the parable!

Malachi 3:17-18

17 And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
18 Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.

But Malachi has more.  Remember, John the Baptist is in view (in Malachi 3 and in His discussion with them), and five verses later:

Malachi 4:5-6

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Luke 1:16-17

16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.
17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

The angel had applied Malachi 4 to John — when speaking to a priest in the temple.  Zacharias would have reported Gabriel’s words to the chief priests — and Jesus is talking to their successors.

Jesus continues the “Malachian” challenge.  His parable drew on Malachi’s theme of sons, obedient and disobedient.  Their hearts had not turned back to the Heavenly Father because they had neglected the forerunner who came in the spirit and power of Elijah.

Malachi 1:6

A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name. And ye say, Wherein have we despised thy name?

In Malachi, the priests are acting like disobedient sons — and Jesus is talking to priests.  (Note Malachi 2:10, also addressed to priests.)

Jesus is talking to unbelieving priests.  They refused the “messenger” (Malachi 3:1) who came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6). They were not sons whose hearts turned to the Lord (Malachi 4:5-6) and now served Him truly (Malachi 3:17), but the wicked who did not serve (Malachi 3:18) and who denied their one Father (Malachi 2:10).  They were priests who refused the obedience a son gives his father (Malachi 1:6).  They, not the blatant sinners who had now repented, were the disobedient sons.

Jesus would not let them off the hook.  They refused to answer Him about John, but He holds them to account for the truth that all knew.  John was a prophet, His ministry was from Heaven, but they had not believed.  His parable elaborated on this by saying that they were not obedient, not acting like sons, and it served to “discern between the righteous and the wicked” (Malachi 3:18).

Of all the parallels to Malachi in the parable, the strongest is Malachi 3:17-18.  In Jesus’ parable, both were sons, but in Malachi, only the one who served is called a son.  Those who didn’t serve, didn’t obey, were simply called the wicked.  There was a strong warning there, to anyone who knew Malachi well.  Their only hope was to repent, and believe.

Series Summary with links to further articles: “Passion Tuesday” / Crucifixion Tuesday

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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