The two sons with attitude problems
In this parable Jesus addresses one problem, and one problem only; it’s attitude. The chief priests and the elders of the people (v.23)–probably all of them Pharisees (v.45)–had a warped attitude toward themselves, God, John, Jesus, the tax collectors and harlots, and the Kingdom of God. The parable is short, and the point not all that complicated, though explaining its human and theological aspects takes longer.
People who repent of their sin-selfishness, regretting that they have pushed God away, and who believe the “righteousness” message of the Word, are entering the kingdom of God. Then their lives will comply, and they cheerfully give priority to God’s interests. In a word, it’s conversion.
Not everyone understands it; some don’t like the way God does it.
Therefore the parable, in which Jesus sets up a common enough situation pared down to the essentials. Two sons received assignment to do a day’s work for their father. No doubt the vineyard would survive without their day-labor, but the point is that this constituted a small test of each boy’s dedication to his father’s–and his own–interest in the family enterprise. Dad was entitled to their cooperation.
After all, what sort of boys had he raised? What do you think? Of which son do you approve, and of which do you disapprove?
The first son clearly had an attitude problem; his negative knee-jerk reaction was not good, and he made no bones about it. We aren’t told his reasons for rejecting Dad’s request, but his response was a typical enough reflection of human nature; we seek to avoid work; we decline helping our parents; we get preoccupied with our entertainments and pleasures. Our sin-fueled personality doesn’t want to be accountable to anyone, even to God.
And this is, after all, a story-version of the sinner’s attitude toward God. Jesus was constantly confronted with folks who had the same attitude. Or worse.
In the first son’s example of the perverseness of human nature, he at least struggled with his attitude problem; after Dad had turned away from him in disappointment, the lad “afterward regretted it, and went.” As it turned out, he was not really as hard-hearted as he had sounded; his snappish retort did not honestly reflect how he really felt about Dad and Dad’s call on his time and energies. Prompted by inner regret over his bad behavior and powered by love for his father, he made a turn-about, and off he went to the job, no time wasted. That was admirable, and we love him for it.
Next: the second son, faced with the same test, came up with a nice answer. But we can disregard what his mouth said, for his heart was not in it. This fellow knew how to play the game of deception. He could give the right answer; he could even put on his work clothes, pick up the pruning shears, and toy with the pole-trimmer. But it was all facade. He intended to get back to his hobbies as soon as Dad was out of sight.
It’s easy to figure out what made him tick, for we have done the same on occasion–playing the angles in order to escape the work detail.
“But What Do You Think? . . . “
Nothing is told us about the two sons having received the same nurturing care from the father; nothing about how they grew up–both favored; nothing about the father filled with admiration and pride for both. All that is taken for granted; the issue at stake is one of response, and–beneath the slick or choppy surface–the deep current of attitude.
“But what do you think? Which of the two did the will of his father?”
The right answer is easy, and “the moral majority” (chief priests, church council, and Pharisees) knew the right answer. The first son’s tough exterior actually camouflaged a soft heart. The second son, however, was a fraud; he camouflaged the soul of a hypocrite. Who can honor or admire him?
And that’s the point, Jesus says, about the two kinds of sinners.
Some, like the “tax collectors and harlots,” were tough on the outside, self-indulgent, and wayward. But when Baptizer John’s message got through to them (with a lot of finger-pointing and blunt language), they believed what John told them about themselves and about God. They repented, sorrowing inwardly that they had treated God’s will so shabbily. They had second thoughts that brought them back to their Father’s home and to the family enterprise.
On the other hand, folks like the Jewish religious self-righteous frauds had memorized the correct religious responses, but their hearts were not softened by what John had to say about matters such as their own wickedness and God’s choice of Jesus as Messiah.
Did the Savior’s intense story-time cut to the quick of their souls? The answer is revealed at the close of the chapter, where after another parable even more blunt than this one they caught on (v.45) that Jesus was pointing the finger at them; yet even then they continued steadfastly hell-bent to say NO to God–thus snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
What does this mean to you, dear reader? Which of the two sons do you resemble? Do you love God enough to come back home to Him even after you have asserted your independence to His face; do you have a soft heart beneath your tough exterior? Or–are you the child that says “yes” but means “no,” with the soul of a hypocrite and your life a hoax?
If the truth be told, we resemble each son to a degree: we have some qualities of each in our spiritual DNA and arteries; but which is the real me when the chips are down? Who starts out his God-given “day” in disobedience to God, but afterward regrets it and comes around to “enter the kingdom of God”? Contrariwise, who starts out his day with smiling compliance but means not a word of it?
Do you see where you fit in this parable? You be the judge.
–Paul R. Koch