The question concerning Jesus' authority and the parable of the two sons occurs in Matthew's record of the opening events of Passion Week. They are part of a group of controversies that occur in the precincts of the temple court. The parable is the first of a group of three in which Jesus attacks the Jewish leaders. The first and the third are peculiar to Matthew.
v23. Public questioning and debate between religious teachers was a popular sport in Judaism. Yet, it is likely that these representatives of the Sanhedrin were more into entrapment than debate. In seeking to identify the authority by which Jesus exercised his ministry, they were hoping to gather further evidence for a charge of blasphemy.
v24-25a. Jesus reads their motives and so toys with them. He asks them by what authority John the Baptist exercised his ministry.
v25b-26. They could give Jesus an answer, even debate the matter, but they were smart enough to see they would be cornered. They were there to entrap Jesus, but now found themselves trapped.
v27. These religious officials had long rejected Jesus and therefore, Jesus rejects their right to judge him.
v28-31b. The son, who was initially disobedient but finally obeyed his father and went to work in the vineyard, represents the "tax collectors and the prostitutes". These outcasts (rebels to God's law), on hearing the good news of the kingdom, repent, believe and enter. Although initially disobedient, when it comes to the crunch, they obey. The son who said he would obey, but in the end didn't, represents "the chief priests and the elders of the people." These righteous ones, who passionately obey God's law, outwardly at least, refuse to repent and believe in Jesus. Although seemingly obedient, when it comes to the crunch, they find themselves outside the kingdom of God.
v31c-32. The long awaited age has dawned. John the Baptist, faithful to his calling, has detailed the means of access into the very presence of God - how to stand before God right / approved in his sight; how to enter the kingdom and be a part of God's new age. Access into God's presence is through repentance (a turning from self to God) and belief in the word of God revealed through John and particularly now, through and in the person and work of Jesus. Yet, an amazing and totally unexpected thing has occurred, the seemingly righteous sons have refused to enter and the outcasts are streaming in.
One son said "yes", but did nothing, the other son said "no", but later did the father's will. Doing the father's will was the issue. The older son, representing religious Israel, might have said "yes" to the Father's will, but did not do it. The younger son, the outcast, had said "no", but did it. The "tax collectors and the prostitutes" have done the Father's will, they "repent and believe" the kingdom message, and thus they find life.
In our new millennium this story seems redundant. What useful truth can it reveal to those of us who have repented and believed in Jesus? Are we not the son who finally did what his father commanded? Yet, if that were the case there would be little point in Matthew wasting precious space in his gospel recording the parable. What is the use of a back-slap which affirms our standing before God? No, there is more to this parable than meets the eye. The parable reminds believers today that we are, in a sense, the "elder sons", and as such the disobedient son. It well may be that some outside the church are obeying the Father's will and we are not.
So then, how do we apply this parable to the here and now? When it comes to obeying the Father's will, there is one act of obedience which is essential, but which is easily placed in the non-essential basket. It is easy for a believer to forget that their standing in the sight of God is totally dependent on their appropriation, by faith, of God's grace in Christ.
A belief that our standing before God is maintained and advanced by a faithful attention to the law of God, can easily undermine our initial "yes" for Jesus. We can easily come to believe that our appropriation of God's promised blessings, is ours by obedience to Christ. This way of thinking undermines our salvation, for it is "by grace are you save, not by works, lest anyone should boast." The initial "yes" for the journey of faith, can be undermined if we get into the business of winning brownie-points from God. So, let us take care that we haven't said "yes", but have then forgotten the Father's will.
The church today is infested with pietism. Too many church attenders have forgotten their "yes" and now seek a law-righteousness rather than a righteousness which is found in union with Christ. If we are to do what the Father wants, then we must learn that the Christian life is all about receiving rather than doing - it is all about grace rather than works.
1. Looking at v31 and 32, discuss who the two sons represent.
2. The "father wanted" his two sons to work in his vineyard. What does this work represent, as far as our heavenly Father is concerned? Restrict yourself to the passage.
3. Discuss the issue of law-obedience in the Christian church. How dominant is pietism - the heresy of sanctification by works? Examine the grace / law issue.