One of Jesus’ shortest parables has always stuck out to me — even haunted me. Just these few verses make me examine myself to see who I really am as a Christian, and often, I don’t like what I see.
“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” (Matthew 21:28-31).
This passage didn’t bother me until I understood it more fully. Which son did the will of the father? The one who went, the first one. What each son said is irrelevant to the command. The first said he wouldn’t go but did, in fact, do the will of the father. The second one said he would but didn’t go after all.
It also stands out that both sons clearly knew the will of the father: “Go and work in the vineyard today.” Each gave a verbal response, and each did the opposite of what he said.
But that’s not what haunts me. It’s who Jesus was talking to and what they thought of themselves.
Jesus was speaking to the “chief priests and elders” of Israel (v. 23). They asked Jesus by what authority He was doing the things He was doing: the miracles, the teachings, the signs and wonders. Jesus set them up to either acknowledge the only place His authority could come from (God) or declare Jesus’ works were from human authority (blasphemy). The religious leaders were not willing to do either. Jesus then shared the parable of the two sons.
What terrifies me the most is that the religious leaders were Jews who were committed to keeping the letter of the law: resting on the Sabbath, not eating unclean meat, tithing even the smallest seeds (23:23). What diligence! They should have been saved and loved by God for these practices, right?
Yet in both Matthew 21 and 23, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders. The rest of His teaching in Matthew 21 reads “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (v. 31). And in Matthew 23, Jesus warned, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (v. 23). How much more weighty are justice, mercy, and faithfulness than the smallest seeds of harvest?
The implication of the two sons in Matthew 21 is that the chief priests, elders, and those like them are the second son who says he will do the father’s will but doesn’t. Ironically, the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom before these religious folk. The reason? The leaders didn’t believe John the Baptist’s message of righteousness, but tax collectors and prostitutes did (v. 32).
That should have been a sign of the power of God, that the traitors and the despised of that day were turning to God. Jesus said the unmentionables believed God’s message, and because of that faith, they would enter the kingdom before the religious folks. They were like the first son, who said he would not obey God’s call but then did. People like this have nothing to lose, nothing that gets in the way of living a life sacrificed to God. There is no pride to break down. They are already reviled by most, so becoming a Christian just gives them a good purpose for which to be reviled.
This is what haunts me. Am I the first son, who did the will of the father, or am I the second, who just said he would but didn’t? Do I have more in common with the religious leaders who counted a tithe of the smallest seeds but didn’t have time for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness? These Pharisees kept distinctive doctrines that are dear to us in the Church of God (Seventh Day), but Jesus rebuked the religious leaders as unfaithful, unmerciful, and unjust.
Ouch! I might excuse myself and say, “But I believe in Jesus, so I’m better than they.” But what do I believe about Jesus? Do I believe He died and saved me, that He was resurrected? Yes! But do I believe Him when He says all authority has been given to Him, so go and make disciples, baptize them, teach them all I have commanded (Matthew 28:18-20)? Does this move me to a changed life, to work in the vineyard today?
Working for God means more than being comfortably religious, since Jesus didn’t deem that enough for the priests and elders of His day. It means we actually have to go and sweat out in the sun, working in the harvest today. We must carry out the weightier matters of the law, as well as all the rest we know to be true (our distinctives).
The good news is God gives us all we need to accomplish His command to go work in the vineyard today. This relieves me. I don’t have to be haunted. I can be the faithful son who hears the call of the Father and replies, “I will go.”
By the power and grace of God, I go.
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