The Two Sons Story.

Matthew 18.28-32.

In the context of this story, Jesus was teaching in temple, and some of the head priests and elders—in other words, people who sat on the Judean senate—came to challenge him.

Matthew 18.23 KJV
23B …and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?

“These things” being when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey like a Messiah, the miracles and healings and exorcisms he performed, and of course his teachings—like he was doing right then. Jesus countered them by asking where they thought John the baptist’s authority came from—and since they didn’t care to answer that one, Jesus saw no point in giving them a straight answer. Mt 18.24-27 Instead he resorted to parables.

As I’ve said many times before, parables are about God’s kingdom. That includes the parables Jesus had for the senators. When Jesus returns to inaugurate his kingdom, every other government is getting overthrown. Every other government. He’s not gonna tell Americans, “You did such a good job with your Constitution, I’m keeping it; only I’m gonna be president now.” Civic idolaters are pretty sure Jesus will do something like that, but you can see how ridiculous it sounds.

And the main reason they’re getting overthrown is expressed in parables like these. God had put them in power, or let them take power; and the purpose of their position was to be just but merciful, Mc 6.8 and defend the needy. Jm 1.27 Instead, same as people have always done, they’re unjust, unmerciful, defend their friends, and their only real goal is to cling to power like a barnacle to a ship.

Jesus began with the Two Sons Story.

Matthew 21.28-32 KWL
28 “What do you senators think of this?—A person has two children.
Going to the first, he says, ‘Child, go today; work in the vineyard.’
29 In reply the child says, ‘I don’t want to.’
Later, repenting, he goes.
30 Going to the other child, the father says the same thing.
In reply the child says, ‘I hear you, sir!’—and doesn’t go.
31 Which of the two does the father’s will?”
The senators say, “The first.”
Jesus told them, “Amen! I promise you the taxmen and whores are ahead of you in God’s kingdom:
32 John the baptist comes to you with the right way.
You don’t believe him. The taxmen and whores believe him.
You who saw him, never repented later into believing him.”

Notice Jesus brings up John the baptist twice: When he asked the senators where John’s authority came from, Mt 21.24 and when he critiqued them for not listening to him. Mt 21.32 See, Jesus did most of his preaching in his home province, the Galilee. Other than his thrice-a-year visits to Jerusalem for the festivals, that’s where he was, and where he ministered. But John was in Judea. Had been for years. (Admittedly we don’t know how many, but it’s not unreasonable to figure a decade.) The senators even sent people to check him out, Jn 1.19 but never heeded him, and he called them out for it. Jesus had plenty of complementary things to say about John, but most Sadducees and Pharisees never did accept those statements, nor John.

The obedient and disobedient children.

I first heard Jesus’s parables as a boy. Mom had this 10-volume set of illustrated bible stories called The Bible Story, by Seventh-Day Adventist author “Uncle Arthur,” a.k.a. Arthur S. Maxwell. It’s still being published; I still find copies of the volumes in Sunday school classrooms and dentists’ offices. Maxwell bunched all of Jesus’s parables together, with drawings of what each of Jesus’s stories might look like. (Well, what they’d look like if ancient middle easterners were white. Other than the Philistines, they weren’t.)

Thanks to The Bible Story’s drawings, in my mind the father in Jesus’s parable was addressing his adult or teenage sons. And he might’ve been. But more likely he was addressing boys. Jesus calls them τέκνα/tékna, “children,” and though it’s a gender-neutral word for daughters or sons, the verbal participles make it clear Jesus means boys.

The first boy responds, “I don’t wanna.” The KJV translates this, “I will not,” but will does not actually mean “do in the future,” as we commonly presume. It’s the verb θέλω/thélo, “I choose,” “I prefer,” “I wish.” The boy isn’t telling his father no; he’s telling his father he doesn’t want to. But of course the KJV doesn’t make this clear, and neither do most translations, which follow the KJV’s lead. The CSB, NASB, and TEV do; they correctly put it “I don’t/do not want to.”

And there’s a big difference in attitude between a son who tells his father “No,” and a son who tells his father, “Oh please no.” One’s rebellion. The other’s just reluctance. Preachers notice this difference, and will preach for a full hour against this son’s initial “rebellion”—and it’s not even warranted. As proven by the fact the reluctant son eventually did as his father said.

On to the next child. This boy, according to the KJV, tells his father, “I [go], sir.” The word “go” is in italics or brackets because it’s not in the text. Jesus has him say, Εγώ, κύριε/Egó, kýrië, which is literally translated “I, master.” It doesn’t really mean “I will do as you say,” although people can certainly jump to that conclusion, and certainly bible scholars and translators have. What it really means is the person hears and understands what’s been told him. It’s acknowledgement. It’s not a yes, though it frequently becomes a yes. But in this case no it didn’t.

And again, we get that hour-long sermon about the second son’s rebellion. Which is a little more warranted, ’cause the boy told his father something which implies he was gonna go work in the vineyard, but really he just said it to get Dad off his back, and then he went off and played soccer. Or went fishing. Or cow-tipping. We don’t know; Jesus doesn’t say. But the boy no doubt gave a non-committal answer so he could correctly claim he didn’t say he wasn’t going to the vineyard.

Parables aren’t precise correlations, so while the father in this story loosely represents our heavenly Father, this hypothetical father doesn’t entirely know what his kids are gonna do after he gives his instructions. Yeah, he might know his kids well enough to know the first boy will obey and the second won’t. But let’s not automatically read God’s all-knowingness into the made-up people of Jesus’s stories. That isn’t Jesus’s point anyway.

The obedient and disobedient senators.

“Which of the two does the father’s will?” Jesus asked the senators. Not “Who obeyed?” or “Who did as he said he’d do?” Nothing that could get politicians to weasel out of the issue by playing with language, as loophole-loving Pharisees regularly did, and loophole-loving Christians still do. We know what the father in this story wanted: He wanted his kids to work the vineyard. Did either of ’em do as the father wanted? Yes, responded the senators; the first one did.

Jesus didn’t have to follow up by saying, “And are you doing as our Father wants?” They’d just lie about it anyway. And everybody within earshot already knew no, they weren’t. The Sadducees ignored every book of the bible but the first five, and constantly compromised God’s laws and values so the Romans would let them stay in power. The Pharisees’ teachings and rulings regularly gave them excuses to not follow God’s commands, and they likewise compromised God’s laws and values to retain power. They knew Jesus was talking about them—and of course every other person with political power who knows better than to break faith with God, but does so anyway.

John condemned such behavior too.

Matthew 3.7-10 KJV
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 9 and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

The Judean leaders had lousy fruit, and clearly weren’t following the Holy Spirit. (Who may not have indwelt them, but it’s not like he’s not still around to point us to God!) They assumed they were saved ’cause their nation had a covenant with God, ’cause Abraham had a relationship with the LORD, but they personally had no such relationship, and can’t presume they’re saved without one. Neither can we.

Whereas taxmen and whores—two categories of unclean people whom your average Pharisee was sure was going to hell, same as both Democrats and Republicans are sure the opposition party is going to hell—heeded John. Followed John. Repented. Got baptized. Quit sinning. Started following Jesus too. They are saved; they’re gonna inherit God’s kingdom. And if the senators presumed their current rank would give them a high position in this kingdom, they’d better think again. In God’s kingdom, the last will be first.

Stuff to remember for those of us who pursue earthly power more than a solid relationship with Jesus. What fruit is that pursuit producing? Who among us is doing our Father’s will?