“The Parable of the Two Sons”

(Matthew 21:28-32 – Pentecost 19 – October 11, 2020)

Matthew 21:28-32 – 28“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ 29He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. 30Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”

Dear Redeemed in the name of Jesus Christ:

When Jesus told parables, He used images from everyday life to picture truths about the Kingdom of God. The image of a vineyard is frequently used in Scripture to picture His Church, and how He seeks to bring His salvation to sinners. In terms of the parable, God is like the man who owns a vineyard. As he asks his sons to work in the vineyard, we are reminded of Jesus’ words in John 6:28-29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” Thus the parable is a picture of God calling sinners to come into His Kingdom, by repenting of their sins and believing Jesus Christ, whom God has sent into the world as the Savior of sinners.

Here Jesus pictures different responses to the will of the Father in “The Parable of the Two Sons” We are led to contemplate our own response, as we see how 1) At first, they respond with rebellion and hypocrisy; but 2) At last, the one responds with repentance and faith.

1) At first, they respond with rebellion and hypocrisy

In the Old Testament, God described Israel like a vineyard He planted and cared for. He had established Israel as the nation through which His Messiah would come. There, God revealed His Word and promises about the Savior, who would come to take away the sins of the world. For ages, God prepared His people, like a man tending his vineyard, calling them to repent of their sins and look in faith to the coming of the Christ. When Jesus came into the world, John the Baptist went ahead of Him, preparing people’s hearts to receive their Savior by preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). As Jesus came forth, John declared to the people: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

The call of God the Father continues to go to the ends of the earth by His Gospel. It is a joyful message, that proclaims how He so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son – who died on the cross to take away all our sins, and who rose again to give us the forgiveness and salvation He won for us. The Gospel declares that God is giving us this gift freely, through faith in Christ; that whoever believes in Him shall not perish have everlasting life (John 3:16).

But among those who hear the good news of the Savior, there is not always a warm welcome, as pictured in the sinful response of the two sons. There are many who respond, up front, like the first son in the parable. When his loving father calls him and says: “‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not'” (vs. 28-29). He is the rebellious son. He wants to do his own thing. There is no way he is going to do the father’s will!

Here Jesus compares the first son to the likes of tax collectors and harlots. Such people were known in Israel for their crass lives of sin. Outwardly speaking, when God said in His Word: “Be holy,” by their lives they responded in the rebellious spirit of the first son: “I will not.” They chose to live their own way in disobedience. They lived in unrepented sins like the greed and theft of the tax collectors, or the sexual immorality of the harlots. It was obvious that if anyone were to be shut out of the Kingdom of God, it was such as these.

But among those who hear God’s gracious Gospel, and His call to repent and believe in the Savior of sinners, there are many who respond like the second son in the parable. When the father called him and said, “Son, go, work today in my vineyard,” he answered up front: ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go” (vs. 30). He is the hypocritical son. For all his outward show of respect and obedience, his final response was no different from the initial response of the first son. With his lips he said “yes” to the will of the father; but in his heart he said “no”; he did not go.

Here Jesus compares the second son to the likes of the chief priests and elders of the people, to whom He was speaking (vs. 23). These religious leaders in Israel made a great show of respect and obedience. When God gave His Law, everyone knew they were the ones who said: “I go, sir.” Such men were certain that, if anyone were doing the work of God’s kingdom, it was them. Outwardly speaking, they kept all the prescribed rules for religious ceremony; they meticulously followed the Law of God, in addition to many man-made laws for holiness. They seemed to be saying and doing all the right things in the sight of God and men.

But Jesus exposed their hypocrisy when he said in Matthew 15:7-8: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.'” Despite all their outward appearances and respectful salutations to God, they were not really doing the Father’s will. For Jesus said: “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life” (John 6:40). But they despised the Father’s will, rejecting Jesus. Believing they made themselves holy by their own righteous acts, they saw no need for a Savior of sinners.

So far, we see the natural response of the sinful human heart. When the heavenly Father calls sinners to repent and believe in His Son as the only Savior, the sinful heart resists His will. Whether a person answers with outright rebellion that says “No” to the will of the Father, going on with a life of impenitence; or whether a person answers with hidden hypocrisy that says “Yes,” while harboring impenitence and unbelief in the heart; either way, one has not entered the Kingdom of God.

2) At last, one responds with repentance and faith

But now, let us consider the response that is worked by the grace of God in the heart – that of repentance and faith. Jesus pictures this in the first son. At first, he openly rebelled against the will of his father by saying: “I will not”; but then Jesus says: “afterward he regretted it and went.” Thus at last, the most unlikely son did repent and do the will of his father.

Here, Jesus pictures the grace of God in bringing even the most unlikely sinner into His Kingdom, by repentance and faith. As Jesus spoke to those who took pride in their outward holiness, as meriting a place in God’s Kingdom, He told them the truth in love: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him” (vs. 31-32).

John the Baptist had come to show the true way of righteousness, to show the Father’s will. He had preached God’s stern Law against sin, leaving no room for the proudest sinner to think that his own acts of righteousness before God would ever save him. Then He had pointed to the Savior, who alone is righteous and who gives sinners His gift of forgiveness and righteousness. John pointed to Jesus: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

As John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, we learn that many self-righteous religious leaders “rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him” (Luke 7:30). In their pride, they did not think they needed to be saved from sin by the cleansing forgiveness of God’s Son. So Jesus warns that, despite outward appearances of righteousness, they who believed they were doing the will of the Father had not even entered His Kingdom!

But at the same time, by the grace of God, some of the most unlikely sinners had been brought to repentance and saving faith in Christ. By the power of God’s Word, and the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, those who had been living in hard-hearted rebellion against the will of God were converted. Among them were tax collectors, who had walked in dishonest paths of greed and theft; and harlots, who had lived dirty lives in sexual immorality. Yes, even the worst of sinners were brought to their knees as God’s Law condemned their sin. They regretted their ways and repented. They confessed their sins and were baptized into Christ (Matthew 3:5-6). They received His gift of forgiveness, and were clothed in His righteousness. According to the gracious will of the Father, they had been brought into His Kingdom!

What is the difference between the first son and the second son? What is the difference between those who come into the Father’s Kingdom and those who remain outside? It is the repentance and faith worked in the heart by the grace of God, by the work of His Holy Spirit. It is that repentance and faith by which we live, as we confess our sins before God and cling only to the blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse us of all our sin, and His righteousness to cover us and present us holy before His Father.

Like the first son, we confess that we have that rebellious sinner inside – our sinful nature. That is why we are not always eager to get to work in God’s Kingdom and do His will alone. How often have we responded to the Word and the will of our heavenly Father with that rebellious spirit that says: “I will not! I want to live my own way”? And sometimes, that spirit has taken us into dishonest and dirty paths – thoughts, words, and deeds which we later regret.

And like the second son, we confess that we have that hypocritical sinner inside – for that too is the character of the sinful nature. At times, we have tried to look good on the outside, while hiding sinful attitudes in our heart. We have promised to seek first the things of God’s Kingdom, and vowed to be faithful to His Word and Sacraments. We have pledged to support the work of His Gospel with our time, gifts, and prayers. But how often, in actual practice, our initial zeal has declined; and we have served ourselves. Who of us could claim that we have always done the will of the Father, with wholehearted devotion?

But this is exactly why we need the Savior of sinners. So let us turn our focus to that Son –who not only said “Yes” to the will of the Father, but actually did all that the Father wanted. Jesus alone is that perfect Son of God; and He has come as our Savior. When His Father sent Him from heaven on a mission of mercy, to bring His Kingdom to sinners, Jesus said “Yes, Father; I will go!” He came to serve with all His heart and give His life as a ransom for us (Matthew 20:28). In every way that God’s Law commanded holiness, Jesus kept that Law for us. He lived the only perfect and sinless life, which God is counting to us for our righteousness. For every way we have failed to do the will of the Father, Jesus went to the cross to take away our sins. Even as He faced with dread the cup of suffering and death He must drink in our place, He said with perfect obedience to His Father: “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Now like the first son in the parable, even the most unlikely sinners are made true sons of the Kingdom, through repentance and faith in Christ. By the grace of God, our hearts have been converted. We did not become children of our heavenly Father by our works of service in His Kingdom; nor do we remain His children by our works. But from beginning to end, we are sons of God by His gift of grace alone, through the work of salvation His Son has completed for us. By a Holy Spirit given faith, we confess our sins to God with full honesty; for we have His promise that, for Jesus’ sake, He cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). As the baptized children of God in Christ, we are covered in the holiness of His Son (Galatians 3:27).

Now that we are the children of God in Christ, our faith responds to His Fatherly love by saying “Yes” to His will. By His Spirit in us, He is making us more and more like His Son. The grace of God moves us to serve in His Kingdom purely out of thankfulness, as we rejoice in the gift of salvation and eternal life He freely gives us in His Son. And from our heart we say:

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.