Theme: Christ as Judge
This week’s lesson teaches us that we hate God, and only by his grace learn to love him
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew He was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest Him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that He was a prophet.
Jesus was a superb teacher, and one of the teaching devices He used was to initiate some striking action and then, after He had gained the attention of the people, to explain what His action was about. We see this frequently in John’s gospel in which Jesus first performs a miracle and then provides a long discourse to explain the symbolism. The feeding of the five thousand is followed by His teaching on the bread of life, for instance. The raising of Lazarus is followed by Jesus’ discourse on being the resurrection Himself.
This pattern has not always been so obvious in Matthew’s gospel where the teaching tends to stand on its own more than in John. But the pattern is apparent in Matthew 21 and the first part of Matthew 22. In the first half of Matthew 21 Jesus has performed three symbolic actions:
He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, thereby presenting Himself as Israel’s true king and messiah.
He cleansed the temple, restoring it to its God-given function as a “house of prayer,” rather than a “den of robbers.”
He cursed the fig tree as a symbol of God’s coming judgment on the nation for its failure to produce true spiritual fruit.
We understand what those actions meant because we have the gospel’s explanation of them. But they would not have been readily understood by those of Christ’s day, not even by the disciples, which is why these actions are followed by the teaching we have in the remainder of chapter 21 and the first part of chapter 22. The teaching is in the form of three parables: 1) the parable of the two very different sons (Matt. 21:28-32); 2) the parable of the wicked tenant farmers (Matt. 21 :33-46); and 3) the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22: 1-14). It is obvious that these stories are intended to explain the earlier actions, because the second parable concludes with the judgment: “Therefore. . .the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matt. 21:43). This is what the withering of the fig tree was about.
Each of these parables is simplicity itself, and the teaching was not lost on the Pharisees and priests who heard it. The chapter ends by saying that “they knew he was talking about them” (v. 45).
The first story was about two sons. Each was told by his father to go and work in the vineyard. One said he would not, but afterward repented and went. The other said he would but did not go.
The son who said he would obey his father but did not actually do it represents the chief priests and elders; they had a reputation for being God’s servants, but they rejected the prophets. The son who rejected his father’s command but later did what he wanted represents the tax collectors and prostitutes, who had been in rebellion against God’s standards but who in many instances repented of their particular sins and came to Jesus.
Moreover, since the command of the father was to work in the vineyard, this is a parable, not merely of salvation—that is, of believing on Jesus—but also of Christian service. It asks, “Who are those who truly serve?” as well as “Who are God’s children?” Or we could put it this way: “What is the fruit of true religion?” Christ’s answer is in terms of doing or failing to do the will of the father, rather than other matters.
Who was Jesus referring to in the three parables? How did they react?
Who do each of the brothers represent in the parable of the two sons? What does the parable mean?
What in addition to salvation is this parable teaching us about?
Jesus often tells a parable, then explains the action. Why?