Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Two Sons



Mathew 21:28-32

This parable belongs to a trio of parables describing how the Jewish nation failed God. They were the recipients of God's solicitude, care, and cultivation. They made lofty professions but failed to act. They refused to listen to God's messengers, the prophets. These parables come after the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple during the last week of Jesus' ministry. Jesus had been teaching and preaching to the Jewish nation for over three years and things were now coming to a head. The Jewish leaders had not responded to his message and plans were underfoot now to discredit Jesus and kill him. These parables are a last attempt by Jesus to lead them away from their destructive course.

Jesus tells the story of two sons whom the father asks to work in his vineyard. The first son initially refuses but then changes his mind and goes to work. The second son, after emphatically stating his willingness to work, doesn't show up. The question Jesus posed to his hearers was "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They answered, "The first son."

Jesus interprets the parable by adding, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."

Oesterley recounts a similar rabbinic parable. "It is like a king who had a plot of land which he wished laborers to cultivate. He called the first and said, 'Wilt thou undertake [to cultivate] the field?' He replied, 'I have not the strength to do so, it is too hard for me.' In the same way he asked a second, a third, and a fourth; but none of them would undertake it. Thereupon he called the fifth, and said to him, 'Wilt thou undertake to [cultivate] the field?' He replied, 'Yes'. Then he (the king) said, 'On the condition that thou wilt keep it in order?' He replied, 'Yes.' But when he came to the field, he let it lie fallow. Upon whom will the wrath of the king be vented, on those who said, 'We cannot undertake it,' or against him who undertook it, but who having undertaken it, and having come [to the field], let it lie fallow? Will it not be upon him who undertook it?" 1

In this rabbinic parable the contrast is not between those who say they will not go and later went, and those who say they will go and later do not go but between those who say they will not work and did not and those who say they will and did not. The point is that it is better to refuse to work than to promise to work and not do it. It is better not to promise even though you do not work then to promise and do not work. This latter group in Jesus' parable is like the religious leaders but the first group does not correspond because the publicans and harlots did in fact later go to work. The parable of Jesus is much more fitting and appropriate for his purpose.

The primary message of both parables is similar-it is better to refuse to work than to promise to work and not do it. However, Jesus' story is slightly different because his purpose in telling his story is different. That purpose is revealed by its application.

When John the Baptist first came on the scene, his audience of publicans and law breakers, because of their greed, extortion, and immorality, had emphatically declined God's invitation to work in his vineyard. On the other hand, the Pharisees, scribes, priests and other leaders of the nation, with their vocal pronouncements and public behavior, seemed to have accepted God's invitation.

However, when John the Baptist began preaching repentance, many "sinners" who had previously said "no" to God's invitation went to work in God's vineyard willingly. And the religious leaders, who were apparently saying "yes", began to say "no" to God's invitation. Their hypocrisy, insincerity, and their pride kept them from accepting God's invitation.
This parable teaches that God's evaluation of us is based on our obedience, not our religiosity, profession, our social standing. We may have been wayward and immoral, but when we accept God's message and change our lives, we are citizens of God's kingdom.

Harry Orchard was a hired killer. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he was hired by the Western Federation of Miners who were in a violent struggle against mine owners in the western states. In his confession he admitted more than a score of murders usually by bombings. He was caught after one of his bombs killed former Governor Steunenberg in Caldwell, Idaho.

The famous Clarence Darrow who was the defense lawyer for the Western Federation of Miners described Orchard as "a self-confessed perjurer, kidnapper, thief, firebug, and multiple murderer." 2 Orchard killed or attempted to kill by bombing, shooting, or poisoning his victims. Orchard described himself when he was arrested after the murder of Steunenberg as "a devil incarnate."

There was no question that Orchard was saying a loud "no" to the Lord's invitation. But as he lay in the cell, thinking about his life of crime, he desperately hoped that God could forgive his atrocious crimes. Slowly through an Episcopal chaplain and then through the forgiving spirit of Mrs. Steunenberg, the widow of the murdered man and a Seventh-day Adventist, Orchard was led to Christ and baptized into the Adventist Church. His changed life was a witness to the power of the Holy Spirit. He finally said "yes" to God's invitation.

We may have been religious and moral; we may even now be judged religious and moral. But when God's message calls us to repentance, do we really obey? Does our religion make us truly obedient or does it mask hypocrisy and pride? Do we humbly recognize our insufficiency, our true sinfulness, and our dire need of God's grace? Do we act in accordance with the gospel message? We can be baptized, attend church, and perform all the proper and appropriate religious duties and still refuse to obey God. According to John Stott, Rowena Pringle was such a person.

William Golding is a contemporary novelist who has vividly illustrated the negative power of hypocrisy. In his book Free Fall he tells the story of Sammy Mountjoy, an illegitimate child brought up in a slum, who became a famous artist. During his school days he was torn between two teachers and between the two worlds they represented. On the one hand there was Miss Rowena Pringle, a Christian who taught Scripture, and on the other Mr. Nick Shales, an atheist who taught science. Hers was the world of `the burning bush'.,. of supernatural mystery, his of a rationally explicable universe. Instinctively, Sammy was drawn to the burning bush. Unfortunately, however, the advocate of this Christian interpretation of life was a frustrated spinster who had her knife into Sammy because he had been adopted by the clergyman she had hoped to marry. She took her revenge by being cruel to the boy. `But how,' Sammy later asked himself, `could she crucify a small boy. . . and then tell the story of that other crucifixion with every evidence in her voice of sorrow for human cruelty and wickedness? I can understand how she hated, but not how she kept on such apparent terms of intimacy with heaven'. It was this contradiction which kept Sammy from Christ. 3

Sammy concludes: "Miss Pringle vitiated her teaching. She failed to convince, not by what she said but by what she was. Nick persuaded me to his natural scientific universe by what he was, not by what he said. I hung for an instant between two pictures of the universe; then the ripple passed over the burning bush and I ran towards my friend. In that moment a door closed behind me. I slammed it shut on Moses and Jehovah." 4

Jim was once a Seventh-day Adventist. He grew up in a farm in Florida. He was thirteen when his parents became zealous converts. The church was having evangelistic meetings and his parents were attending every night. One day Jim and his father came home exhausted after a long, hard day of work. This was the tenth night of the meetings that were to continue for a full three weeks. Jim asked his mother if he could be excused from attending that night since he was so worn out he felt sure he would fall asleep. But his mother steadfastly refused. Once again he asked to be excused. He had attended every meeting so far, and if his mother would let him stay home this one night, he promised he would attend all the rest. But his mother was unyielding.

He went, but he was angry and hurt. Something happened to him. He blamed the church for his mother's attitude and hated it. He determined then and there that when he was old enough to decide for himself, he would never enter a church of that denomination again. And he never did. His mother's commitment to the church was admirable, but her treatment of her son was appalling. She had commitment without compassion. She was saying, "Yes, yes, I will work in God's vineyard," but in reality, she did not go.

Jesus says that the professions of the Pharisees meant nothing. Only their acts of obedience counted. All our professions of obedience, all our affirmations of doing what the Lord commands mean nothing if actual obedience does not result. Promises are useless if they are not kept. "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Mathew 7:21)

1. Oesterley, p. 117
2. Quoted in Harry Orchard in collaboration with Leroy Edwin Froom, Harry Orchard: The Man God Made Again (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1952), p. 132.
3. John R. W. Stott, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), pp. 268-269.
4. William Golding, Free Fall (New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), p. 217, as quoted in Ibid, p. 269.

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