The opposition to Jesus by the religious leaders of the day was reaching a crescendo. In this section, Jesus continues His conversation with “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (see Matt. 21:23). Jesus uses parables to instruct and rebuke them. He begins by asking them to pay special attention (there will be a quiz at the end): “What do you think?” “As Christ instructed His disciples by parables, which made the instructions the more easy, so sometimes He convinced His adversaries by parables, which bring reproofs more close, and make men to reprove themselves. Thus Nathan convinced David by a parable (see II Sam. 22:1), and the woman of Tekoa surprised him in like manner (see II Sam. 14:2). Reproving parables are appeals to the offenders themselves, and judge them out of their own mouths. This Christ designs here, as appears by the first words, ‘What do you think?’” [Henry].
Jesus tells the parable: “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go” (vss. 28–30). We learn, parenthetically here, that one and the same father can beget children of vastly differing characters. And indeed, we all have one Heavenly Father, and there are great differences in the characters of men.
The first son was initially, not only obstinate, but also somewhat rude. His answer to his father was “rough and curt” [Broadus, 438]. Simply, he said, “I will not.” Contrast this with the (apparent) respect shown by the second son: he said, “I will, sir.” The first son was truly and stubbornly adamant against doing his father’s will. But at least he was honest to his father. He told him outright that he had no intention of working for him. The second son’s words, in contrast, were pure hypocrisy, an attempt to, for the moment, make himself sound like a loyal son. The father must have remembered bitterly the word “sir”, when he later learned of the result.
The first son repented: “Later he changed his mind and went.” “This was true repentance, for it led to practical obedience. He did not offer a verbal apology, or make a promise of future good behavior; he did far better, for he went about his father’s business without more ado” [Spurgeon, 299]. The second son simply “did not go.” “His fine phrases and fair promises were deceit and falsehood” [Spurgeon, 299]. “He represents easy going, self-complacent people, who take their own virtue for granted; they make promises quickly, expressing warm feelings and good intentions” [Thomas, 310]. “Many with their mouth show much love, but their heart goes another way. They had a good mind to be religious, but they met with something to be done that was too hard, or something to be parted with that was too dear, and so their purposes are to no purpose. Buds and blossoms are not fruit” [Henry].
Jesus next asks the religious leaders, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (vs. 31). Here we see the great value of the parable, for the answer to Jesus’ question is so obvious. Men are much more ready to point out the faults of others, before they see their own. “He compels them to realize and even to declare their own guilt” [Thomas, 309]. “‘The first,’ they answered.”
Jesus shows frankness and honesty in telling the interpretation of the parable: “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him’” (vss. 31b–32). Jesus begins His interpretation of the parable with a statement that He is to say something important and, of course, true: “I tell you the truth.” Jesus pulls no punches. He makes it quite clear that the religious leaders of the day are the rebellious second son in the parable. “Here for the first time our Lord makes an open, personal application of a parable to the Jewish authorities (also in vs. 43ff). The time has come for speaking out unreservedly to them, and also to the people concerning them, as He will do later in the day (see Matt 23)” [Broadus, 439]. Then also, much (I’m sure) to the chagrin of the chief priests and elders, he declares that the repentent “tax collectors and prostitutes” (proverbial for all evil of the time) are the obedient first son, who do the will of the Father.
So, this parable becomes a warning to all those who show lip-service to the Father—they may be regular churchgoers, they may even be pastors—but do not in the end obey His Word and serve Him. “We learn that faith does not consist merely in a person giving subscription to true doctrine, but also includes something greater and deeper: the hearer is to deny himself and commit his whole life to God” [Calvin, III-14]. Then also, this parable is a gift of hope to those who had sinned in the past—even grievous sinners—but who repent, and obey and serve the Father. “Let it be a settled principle in our Christianity that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely willing to receive penitent sinners. It matters nothing what a man has been in time past. Does he repent, and come to Christ? Then old things are passed away, and all things are become new (see II Cor. 5:17)” [Ryle, 274].