20. Parable of the Two Sons

(Matthew 21:28-32)

Jesus tells this parable of the two sons to illustrate how actions are significantly more important than intentions.

Context of the Parable

Specifically, in context, Jesus tells this parable to the religious leaders, who have just asked him about his authority, in order to show them their disobedience to God.

The religious leaders ask Jesus, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" (Matthew 21:23)

Jesus tells them he will answer their question if they answer one of his.

He asks, "Did the baptism of John (the Baptist) come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" (Matthew 21:25)

However, the religious leaders know "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." (Matthew 21:25-26)

Therefore, they say "We do not know."

Jesus then says, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things." (Matthew 21:27)

However, he tells them the parable of the two sons, which he relates back to John the Baptist.

Summary of the Parable of the Two Sons

Jesus says, "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.'

The son answers, 'I will not,' but he later changes his mind and goes to work in the vineyard.

The father also goes to his second son and tells him the same thing, to which the son says, 'I go, sir,' but then he did not go.

Jesus then asks, "Which of the two did the will of his father?" (Matthew 21:31)

They of course say, 'The first,' to which Jesus says:

"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." (Matthew 21:31-32)

Background Information for the Parable of the Two Sons

John the Baptist's message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). It is important to mention that repentance is not an action someone does frequently.

Rather, repentance is a complete change of actions and thoughts.

When someone actually 'repents' it's as if they were walking in one direction and then turn around and go in the opposite direction.

If someone repents of gossiping about you, it means they come to you, sincerely apologize, ask for your forgiveness, and never do it again.

If that person continues to gossip about you, then they have not actually repented at all, and many of us would likely say, "You aren't sorry! If you were sorry, you'd stop gossiping about me!"

In John's message, he was calling for the repentance of all sinning.

Those who repented stopped their sinning and began living righteously.

Meaning of the Parable of the Two Sons

Thus, when Jesus tells this parable of the two sons, and makes this statement about the religious leaders not believing John, he is saying:

Those who were tax collectors and prostitutes believed John, and they repented.

They stopped sinning, which means the tax collectors stopped abusing the tax system to steal money and the prostitutes stopped being prostitutes.

These people are thus entering the kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders, who did not believe John and did not repent.

Jesus is calling the religious leaders sinners, saying that unlike the other sinners, they did not stop sinning like the tax collectors and prostitutes did.

(Note: Jesus specifically tells what the sins of the religious leaders are in Matthew 23.

He says they do not practice what they teach, calling them hypocrites, and lists several examples of their sins.)

Concluding Summary for the Parable of the Two Sons

Essentially, Jesus tells this parable of the two sons to show the religious leaders that they are the son who says 'I go, sir' but then doesn't obey their father.

Jesus is telling them that having the intentions to obey God isn't enough.

It is only those who actually obey God, whether they originally say they will or not, who are doing the will of their father.

And Jesus says, "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." (Matthew 7:21-23)

Intentions alone aren't worth anything, because obedience or disobedience are based on our actions.

Additional Sources

There are other parables that also communicate this message that obedience is necessary and that we show what we believe by what we do, which are:

Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders

Parable of the Faithful and Wise Servant

Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Parable of the Sheep and Goats

Go to previous parable: 19. Workers in the Vineyard

Go to next parable: 21. Wedding Banquet

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