Parable of the Two Sons
Ordinary 26 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 21: 23 — 32
As we move, week by week, through the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s ministry, we see quite a bit of interaction between Jesus and the senior Jewish authorities of His time. As everyone knows, He frequently came into opposition with them. It is beneficial for us to remember that not all of those in the high command were opposed to Him. However, there can be no doubt, the ones who had the final say found Jesus to be a constant threat in terms of His teaching. He called for vigorous attention to the true teaching of Torah, the Law of Moses, and never missed an opportunity to expose pretended piety and religious compliance. The Jews in power, having been screened and approved by the Roman Governor found themselves in a very convenient, safe position of authority. As is so very human, they gradually came to see how they could use their position to their own advantage — and often did so. But to achieve their personal goals they had to compromise the Jewish Faith. Shrewdly they paraded a virtuous front to the common Jewish people — but it was shallow and unworthy of true Jewish historic, Biblical religion.
Jesus attacked false facades of religion. We see Him doing this in many different situations. Chapter 21 of Matthew gives us yet more evidence of what He was up against, and how hard it was, literally, to “get through” to people who had their own agenda.
The text assigned for this week is Matthew 21: 28 – 32 which is the Parable of the two sons. For our purposes, we would be helped by including the short interaction recorded by St Matthew before the parable. We have therefore included verses 23 to 27.
The setting is Jerusalem, into which our Lord had made a triumphal entry only a day or two before. The presence of Jesus in the city is widely known and is causing distinct discomfort to the Jewish authorities.
Some Reflections On the Text
The “authorities” try to suppress Jesus by their “authority”
Verses 23 – 27
When he had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the
elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said,
“By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you
Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, and if you
answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these
Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human
origin?” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we
say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not
But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all
regard John as a prophet.”
So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself
said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do
Verses 23 – 27 (Paraphrased)
Jesus, fully aware of the electric atmosphere He was walking into, entered the Temple precincts. This was the Court of the Gentiles where He had every right to be and to teach. From all accounts His rabbinic teaching sessions were very well attended. After waiting for a good crowd to assemble before Him, a committee of senior clergy and lay elders arrived on the scene in the style of an august tribunal, with due formality and an unmistakable air of authority. It was perfectly obvious to Jesus that their intention was to emphasise their official authority, and His lack of it. What made this all the more unfortunate was that these people lived a life of pretended compliance with the Law of God, and they were always making a great show of it.
When the uninvited visitors had completed their grand entrance, they rudely interrupted the teaching of Jesus with two questions intended to put him on the back foot:
• “By what authority are you working the miracles and healings
we have been hearing about?”
• “Who gave you this authority?”
In this “rural” and unsophisticated rabbi the authorities quickly
discover they have met more than their match, for He quickly
• “I shall ask you one question, and only if you answer it for me,
shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
So far they haven’t murmured a sound: it is they who suddenly
are on the back foot.
• “Where was John’s baptism (i.e. his whole ministry and authority),
from? Was it of heavenly or human origin?”
The authorities step aside to discuss quietly among themselves
how best to work their way out of the dilemma Jesus has confronted
• “If we say of heavenly origin, He will say to us, ‘Then why did you
not believe him?’
• But if we say ‘Of human origin’, we fear the crowd, for they all
regard John as a prophet.” The authorities are either incredibly
naïve or, at best, rather pompous, for they think they can avoid
• “We do not know,” they said in reply, meaning (inwardly) they
were not prepared to give an answer.
Jesus therefore wastes no time in His dealing with them:
• “Oh really”, He says. “Then you will also not know by what
authority I do these things!”
Immediately He follows with another challenge. He is keeping the pressure up on them and, despite their numbers, as we shall see, He remains in full control of the situation. He then does something He is very good at — He changes the topic from authority to obedience. One needed to be a pretty smart rabbi to do that in such distinguished, scholarly, company! Let us take a look at how Jesus conducted Himself during the rest of the incident.
Action is the test of obedience
Jesus confronts some corrupt authorities of the Temple with a parable and a challenging question.
Verses 28 – 32
“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first
and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and
prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did
not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even
when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and
This passage opens in a way which demonstrates that it is strategically linked to the prior section (verses 23 – 27). Jesus will not let His protagonists get off as easily as they hope. He quickly begins another challenge by asking: “But what do you think?” He then tells a short parable to draw them out. We will walk through a paraphrase of the action. Such a process allows us to factor into the Gospel account the cultural background known and taken for granted at the time.
• A man had two sons: one was outwardly religious and the other
was conspicuously irreligious. But they were brothers.
(In this parable, our Lord’s listeners soon learn that the “man” is
His Heavenly Father, and the two sons, the children of God.)
• The father, explained Jesus, had a vineyard. Such places were
always cultivated, ordered, cared for and valued. Only very
trusted people were carefully chosen to work in it.
• The father, in a kind and respectful manner, asked the first
son to go and work for the day in the family vineyard.
• The son, in a rude and disrespectful manner replied,
“No, I will not.” Some time later he regretted he had been so
rude and ungrateful. He repented and did what his father
had quite reasonably asked him to do. He had been
ungrateful, but at least he was open enough, eventually, to see
that he was wrong.
• The father then asked his other son to go likewise and work in the
• The second son, all aglow with apparent reverence and conformity
replied: “Yes sir, of course!” But, he just didn’t get round to going,
and even gave the impression that he had never intended to!
• Jesus asked His opponents, “Who carried out their father’s will?”
• The Lord’s opponents, so puffed up with their own importance
and self-righteousness missed the point of the parable and
answered without hesitation, words to the effect:— “It was the
first son — he had been a bit disruptive but finally came around
to learning where he had gone wrong. But the second — he was
plain hypocritical, saying “Yes” to his father’s face but when out
of sight, did anything he wanted, except what his father had
asked of him. He really let his father down!
• Our Lord moves quickly to demonstrate that they had just
described themselves. He said: “Amen, I say to you ….. “.
This formula always indicates to the listeners that they had
better get this straight — and get it into their heads once and for all!
• He then says what has to be said: straight, pointed, no “mincing”
— All the despicable Roman collaborators who collect their
— even the lowest of the low who are despised by all (though
used by some), that is the male and female prostitutes,
hanging around dark porticos or beside bridges;
— all those who seem to you to be so irreligious and beyond
— Don’t you realise they are at least humble enough to know
how disreputable they are? You don’t have to tell them.
They know they will never cut it with you.
— But I am telling you, they actually hear God’s call to personal
repentance and reform in their lives. They are the ones who
heard John the Baptiser and took him seriously.
• He gave them hope that they could turn their lives around and so
many of them have made a fresh start.
• They are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you lot.
• You heard exactly the same message from my cousin John as they
did. But you didn’t listen. You didn’t hear the call for everyone —
yes everyone to repent. They heard and repented.
• Even after seeing John baptise people who responded to his
preaching, you still weren’t moved in the slightest way, to be
humble enough to do likewise.
• You had better sort yourselves out and swallow your pride
because your religion is a sham!
• It is not my authority you need to convince you of what I
am teaching — it is your obedience to the will of my Father
which will permit you to enter His Kingdom.
Not a word was uttered by our Lord’s opponents.
Relating our paraphrases back to the text
This is a very courageous face-to-face encounter where Jesus tries to pierce the pride, superior attitude, and cold arrogance of some of the Jewish authorities (please note: some). The story is used by Jesus as a mirror, to show these hardened senior religious men how they are behaving. The parable is not a condemnation. It shows God as a father setting forth His impartial love for all humanity, righteous and sinful alike. Our Lord insists we treat all as family!
In the parable, Jesus contrasts the attitude of the tax collectors and prostitutes (who seemed to reject or ignore God’s commands but actually came round to accepting them) with that of the religious leaders (who claimed to obey God, but in practice didn’t.)
In the thinking of our Lord, the first group are those who are sinners, and know it, and as such are more easily brought to repentance. The second are those who are satisfied with the outward form of godliness and avoidance of open sin.
Jesus, with this in mind, said to them:
“When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not
believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when
you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”
(Matthew 21: 32)
Jesus is emphatic, and means John came preaching God’s will about what was right. As we know, in the Gospel of Matthew, John’s preaching includes a call for each individual person to repent and reform their life, for God’s kingdom is imminent. In this way, John pointed to Jesus and the higher demands of righteousness for those who would enter it. The religious leaders, however, did not believe what John delivered, even after seeing sinners, whom society considered the most vile, repenting and believing his message.
In the Gospel account we have just considered, “righteousness” incorporates the Jewish perspective of the disciple abiding in Torah (the Holy Will of God as expressed in the Scripture), and Torah treasured as a holy presence abiding in the disciple. This is the source from which one is enabled to perform the will of God, to do what is right. As we have so often alluded to in these meditations, this is God’s way of sharing the peace and harmony of heaven on earth; through the right and godly deeds of good people. But this can only be accomplished when we listen to the real message, that is, the truth of God’s Word, take it to heart, and put it into daily practice.
There are the self-righteous in all religions, and Christianity has its share. There are the people who think they treasure God’s Divine Word, yet in fact, pay little real respect to its meaning.
Our Lord’s warning is devastatingly clear; yet there are many groups of Christians who are completely unaware of how exclusive, arrogant, elitist, and therefore mistaken they are in their self-appointed role to condemn others, who do the things of God differently from them! We repeat this often because there seems little or no change taking place. We seem doomed to self-destruct! – were it not for the mercy of God. Thankfully, the changes needed are those which can take place in the lives of the “ordinary” folk, the unnoticed, the seemingly insignificant. That is where the revolution is taking place. And it is unstoppable.
What applies to ancient Israel, applies also to us.
Psalm 85: 8 — 13
I am listening. What is the Lord saying?
What God is saying means peace
for his people, for his friends,
if only they renounce their folly;
for those who fear him, his saving help is near,
and the glory will then live in our country.
Love and loyalty now meet,
Righteousness and peace now embrace;
Loyalty reaches up from earth
and Righteousness leans down from heaven.
The Lord himself bestows happiness
as our soil gives its harvest,
Righteousness always preceding him
and Peace following his footsteps.
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An Overview of Matthew 21: 23 – 32
(From: The Gospel Story, by Ronald Cox.)
Following the resurrection of Lazarus, about two weeks earlier the Jewish leaders had decided that Jesus must die. It would seem that they did not contemplate assassination but arrest and legal condemnation by the supreme council, the Sanhedrin. But Jesus had disappeared, and they did not know where he was until he appeared again at Bethany, the Saturday before Palm Sunday. A new problem now confronted them: all day long, and probably well into the night, he was surrounded by a worshipful crowd. So they spent much time in the council chamber of the temple, planning and discussing how to arrest him. Outside, in the porches of the Gentiles’ Court, Jesus continued his mission of healing and instructing, while they plotted evil within.
An imposing delegation comes out from the council chamber: ‘chief priests’ (Sadducees, the rulers of the temple worship), ‘scribes’ (Pharisees, the teachers in the synagogues, the spiritual rulers of the people), and ‘elders’ (the lay aristocracy, members of families of influence and power in Israel). These three classes represented the governing body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. They are not seeking information from Jesus; he has already told them his authority came from God. Their objective is to discredit him with the crowd, to let them see that his activities do not have the sanction of the rulers of Israel.
When our Lord replied with another question, he was following an accepted rabbinical method of discussion. He mentioned John the Baptist because these same leaders had asked John that very question. If they had acknowledged John, then they would have accepted Jesus. The short parable is concerned with the relations of sinners (‘the first’) and the leaders (‘the other’) with John, that strict observer of the law (‘ following all due observance’). In theory the Pharisees should have welcomed John; after all, the law was their profession.
Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
Parable of the Two Sons.
Ordinary 26 Year A St. Matthew 21: 23 to 32
1. It would be easy to think our Gospel reading was all about conflict. If that were
2. In the parable, after having repented, the first son is mentioned without any
3. Our Lord’s cousin, John the baptizer, came “in the way of righteousness”.
The parable Jesus gave to us has a beginning, a middle, but no ending —
The lovingkindness and mercy of God are still to be carried to the ends of
Let us pray for one another to keep up our personal belief in the mission of Jesus in the world, and the role He gives each of his members to be a conduit, bearing His blessing to the farthermost ends of the earth.
Matthew 21: 23 — 32
Ordinary 26 Year A
23 18 When he had come into the temple area, the chief priests and
24 Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, 20 and
25 Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human
26 21 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all
27 So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself said
28 23 “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first
29 He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind
30 The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said
31 24 Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.”
32 25 When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did
18 [23-27] Cf ⇒ Mark 11:27-33. This is the first of five controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities of Judaism in ⇒ Matthew 21:23-⇒ 22:46 Presented in the form of questions and answers.
19  These things: probably his entry into the city, his cleansing of the temple, and his healings there.
20  To reply by counterquestion was common in rabbinical debate.
22  Since through embarrassment on the one hand and fear on the other the religious authorities claim ignorance of the origin of John’s baptism, they show themselves incapable of speaking with authority; hence Jesus refuses to discuss with them the grounds of his authority.
23 [28-32] The series of controversies is interrupted by three parables on the judgment of Israel (⇒ Matthew 21:28-⇒ 22:14) of which this, peculiar to Matthew, is the first. The second (⇒ Matthew 21:33-46) comes from Mark (⇒ 12:1-12), and the third (⇒ Matthew 22:1-14) from Q; see ⇒ Luke 14:15-24. This interruption of the controversies is similar to that in Mark, although Mark has only one parable between the first and second controversy. As regards Mattew’s first parable, ⇒ Matthew 21:28-30 if taken by themselves could point simply to the difference between saying and doing, a theme of much importance in this gospel (cf ⇒ Matthew 7:21; ⇒ 12:50); that may have been the parable’s original reference. However, it is given a more specific application by the addition of ⇒ Matthew 21:31-32. The two sons represent, respectively, the religious leaders and the religious outcasts who followed John’s call to repentance. By the answer they give to Jesus’ question (⇒ Matthew 21:31) the leaders condemn themselves. There is much confusion in the textual tradition of the parable. Of the three different forms of the text given by important textual witnesses, one has the leaders answer that the son who agreed to go but did not was the one who did the father’s will. Although some scholars accept that as the original reading, their arguments in favor of it seem unconvincing. The choice probably lies only between a reading that puts the son who agrees and then disobeys before the son who at first refuses and then obeys, and the reading followed in the present translation. The witnesses to the latter reading are slightly better than those that support the other.
24  Entering . . . before you: this probably means “they enter; you do not.”
25  Cf ⇒ Luke 7:29-30. Although the thought is similar to that of the Lucan text, the formulation is so different that it is improbable that the saying comes from Q. Came to you . . . way of righteousness: several meanings are possible: that John himself was righteous, that he taught righteousness to others, or that he had an important place in God’s plan of salvation. For the last, see the note on ⇒ Matthew 3:14-15.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,