The Parables of Jesus
by E.H. ‘Jack’ Sequeira

The Parable of the Two Sons

Matthew 21:28-32:

“What do you think?  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.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
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.”

This scripture was spoken by our Lord Jesus during what is known as the Passion week, that is, the last week that Jesus was here just before He was crucified.  The day before He had just cleansed the temple.  Remember, He took those cords and drove out the moneychangers.  This took place the day after.

The chief priests, the elders, the leaders of that temple followed Him and questioned Him regarding His authority and I want you to look at the dialogue that took place because it is in this context that Jesus gave this parable.  It is important that we understand the context.  So let’s look at Matthew 21:23-27.  Remember, this is the next day after Jesus had cleansed the temple.  In verse 23 we read,

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.  “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked.  “And who gave you this authority?”

Who gave you the right to do what you did?  Who gave you this authority?  That’s the question they asked.

Jesus could have said, “I have this authority from My Father,” but He didn’t do that.  This was the last week of His earthly ministry.  He wanted the leaders of the Jewish church to get one more chance.  So He turns to them (verse 24):

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question.  If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Notice the approach.  Now here’s the question Jesus posed to the leaders of the church.  Verse 25a:

“John’s baptism — where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?”

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  In Acts 19, Paul asked a group of believers if they had received the Holy Spirit.  Acts 19:1b-4:

...There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of reprentance.  He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”

Jesus is asking the question, “Did John the Baptist baptize from the authority of God or was he baptizing on the basis of human authority?  Was he a self-appointed prophet or was he a prophet of God?”  That was basically the question.  Verse 25b:

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’”

He put them in a corner.  If they admit that John was a prophet of God, they should have believed him.  What did John the Baptist come to preach?  That Jesus was the Messiah.  So they had a problem here.

But they had another problem.  Verse 26:

“But if we say, ‘From men’ — we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So whichever direction they go they are facing a problem unless, of course, they had repented and accepted Christ.  Then they would have no problem, but as long as they rejected Christ, they would have a problem saying whether He was of God or whether He was of men.  So how did they respond?  Verse 27:

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” [Or, to be more literal to the text, “We will not tell you.”  They refused to answer.]
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

It is in this context Jesus now turns to these leaders in Judaism and He says to them, “What do you think?  I want you to tell me your opinion regarding this parable.”  He is addressing this parable to the elders and the chief priests of the temple.  He’s telling them that they have two sons.  Now the parable is of a father who asked both his sons to go into his vineyard and do some work today.  Now it is very clear that the father represents God, but who is the first son?

The first son is the one who said, “I will not go and work” but later repented and went and worked.  If you look at the second part of verse 31, Jesus tells us who that first son was:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

So the first son who at first said no but then went and worked because he repented represents the tax collectors and the prostitutes who were looked down upon as sinners by the leaders, people who the leaders said were not qualified to go to heaven.

What about the second son?  The second son was asked the same question.  Verse 30:

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing [the same question: go and work today in my vineyard].  He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”

In the end of verse 32 we are told that this represents the leaders of the church.  We read:

“And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

What is this parable all about?  First of all we need to be clear about a statement that Jesus made in the beginning of verse 32:

“For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness....”

What did Jesus mean by that?  Remember the question was, “Who was John from?  Was he from God or was his baptism by human authority?”  The statement is “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness.” That phrase, “to show you the way of righteousness” (or “in the way of righteousness” in some translations) may be interpreted in one of two ways and it is possible that both are right.  It could mean that what Christ was saying here is that, as it states in some translations, John came to show you the way of righteousness.  In other words, “John came to show you that I, Jesus Christ, am the only source of righteousness for salvation.”

Or He could mean that, in the thinking of the Jews, John himself followed the way of righteousness in contradiction to Christ.  John was a conformist.  In other words, John followed all the rules, all the regulations of the Jewish church.  The Jews could not accuse John of not fasting.  They could not accuse him of breaking the Sabbath.  John was a conformist.  The Jews could accuse Christ and his disciples of not fasting.  They could accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath and they did at least four times.

Whichever way you look at it, John represented righteousness.  Either he pointed to righteousness in Jesus Christ or he himself was righteous by his performance.  In other words, “You had no excuse for rejecting John and, if you had accepted John and his message, you would have accepted Me.” This was His final plea to the Jews.

Why did these leaders, the chief priests and elders, reject Christ?  Two reasons.  Number one, pride.  They did not want to admit that they were wrong.  Number two, self-righteousness.  They did not want to link themselves with the tax collectors and prostitutes.  This parable is dealing with the issue that began way back at the fall of Adam and will not end until the end of time.  Do you know the greatest enemy of Christ Our Righteousness is self-righteousness?  This conflict began way back at the fall.  Do you remember what Adam did when he first sinned and discovered he was naked?  He tried to cover himself with fig leaves but God had to cover him up with skins of animals because the fig leaves dried and fell off.

The very next event we read in the Bible is about Cain and Abel.  Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices but one did the will of God, the other did not, even though he offered a sacrifice.  What did Cain do?  He killed Abel and this controversy is going on today.  This is what Christ is trying to get across.  The first son represents those who are sinners but who recognize that they are sinners.  When they are given the gospel, they repent and they accept the gift because they recognize that they are disobedient to God’s requirements.  They are sinners.

Turn to Matthew 11:20-24 and here you get the same picture of these chief elders and priests.  This is in the context of John’s message.  If you read the previous verses you will notice that Christ gives tribute to John the Baptist.  Then in verses 20-21:

Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.  “Woe to you, Korazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida!  If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

Tyre and Sidon were the cities of the Gentiles.  They were cities of people that the Jews looked upon as dogs, as sinners.  Remember Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon and healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman.  Yet Christ is saying, “If Tyre and Sidon had seen what I have shown you, they would have repented.” In other words the greatest evidence that Jesus ever gave that He was the Messiah was His works.  John 14:8-9:

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Jesus said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.”  In other words, “The works that I do, it is not I who do them, it is the Father.” The works of Jesus were works that no other man could do.  They were supernatural works.  They were evidence that God was in this Man.  Jesus is saying in Matthew 11:22:

“But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”

Then He goes on in verse 23:

“And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies?  No, you will go down to the depths.  If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.

But what happens?  Jesus says in verse 24:

“But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Why?  Because God gave greater evidence to the Jews that He was the Messiah than He gave to the Gentiles.  Tyre and Sidon did not have the evidence that the Jews had and yet the elders and the chief priests refused to accept Christ as their Saviour.

I would like to look at some more passages to remind you that we are in that same danger.  Turn to Matthew 7:21:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.“

The Jews, these elders, these chief priests were famous for giving lip service to God just like the second son.  The second son gave lip service, “Yes, sir, I will go and work in your vineyard today,” but he was a hypocrite; he did not mean what he said.  It did not come from the heart; it was simply outward words to please his father and it was not a heart response.  We have this problem all the time.

Now I would like to take this parable which Christ was applying to the elders and the priests of His days and apply it to us, because Jesus is asking the question, “Which of these two sons actually did the will of God, the one who said, ‘Yes’ but did not go or the one who said, ‘No’ but repented and said, ‘Yes’?”  Which of these two sons did God’s will?  Well, you know what the answer is.

There are two things I want to bring out about the second son, the one who said “Yes” but who did not go.  Number one, hypocrisy, which is the typical evidence of a legalist.  When God said to the Jews He would give them His law, what did they say?  Exodus 19:8a:

The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.”

The very next day they were worshipping a golden calf around the corner.  We know that God hates it when His people give Him only lip service.

Let me give you a text.  Turn to Matthew 15:7-9.  Here is a statement quoted from Isaiah.  Jesus is talking to the Jewish nation and He is saying to the leaders of the church:

You hypocrites!  Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:  “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Jesus is saying here that when God gave the Jews His commandments, He gave them something that they could not keep.  Did He know that?  Yes, God knew they could not keep His Ten Commandments.  Why?  Because the flesh cannot keep God’s law.  But they did not know it, so they promised God, “All that you say we will do.”  But when it came to the actual keeping of those commandments, they failed.

Now they had two choices.  One was to admit failure, to repent, and say, “God, we have failed miserably.” But they chose the second choice.  They took the commandments of God which are as holy as God Himself and they reduced them to human rules that they could keep.  They kept those rules and then they deceived themselves because they thought that they were doing the will of God when in actual fact they were not.  They refused to admit that they were sinners.

Let me give you one of their rules.  According to one of their rules, not working on the Sabbath meant that you could not walk more than three quarters of a mile.  But they were very clever because for every rule they had loopholes.  If a boy walked three-quarters of a mile and was trying to visit his girlfriend when she lived two miles down the road, he had a problem.  He had free time, it was the Sabbath, so what did he do?

If you ate or drank something, then you were allowed to walk another three-quarters of a mile.  So he would walk three-quarters of a mile, stop at somebody’s house, knock on the door and say, “Please, sir, can you give me a glass of water?” or “Please, ma’m, I need a glass of water?” They all knew about it.  They all practiced it and if they were not thirsty they would take only a sip and throw the rest of the water out and say, “Thank you,” then walk another three-quarters of a mile and stop at the next house.

What happened if there was no house for the next three-quarters of a mile?  Well, they were very clever.  They had another loophole.  If you drank your spit that was like eating food then you could walk another three-quarters of a mile.  This is what Christ is saying, “You hypocrites.  Who are you deceiving?  Just yourselves.”

I have mentioned many times and I will repeat that the formula of the gospel is “Not I, but Christ.”  The hardest part of that formula is the first part.  For you to say, “But Christ,” you have to admit that you are one hundred percent a sinner.  Most people will admit that they are sinners but to admit that from head to foot there is no soundness, there is nothing good in you is very hard for our human ego.

I was at a college seminar and one of the biggest arguments that came up was the definition of sin.  I took one position and my counterpart took another position.  He took the position that sin is only a choice and I asked him a question, “I believe when probation closes God will have a people who will not knowingly commit any sins.  If, by the grace of God when we reach that position, am I still a sinner in need of grace or am I sinless because I am no longer choosing sin?”  The Bible makes it clear.

Once I was at a General Conference session when a young man came up to me and asked me if I had heard his series on “The Sinless but Sympathetic Saviour.”  I said I had heard about it but I had not heard the tapes.  And he said, “Why don’t you get a set and listen?  I would like your opinion.” So I went to buy them and they were $34.  Since I had used most of my money helping our African brethren, I could not buy them.  When he met me again he asked me if I had them and I told him no, I couldn’t afford them.  So he said he would give me a set.

I do not agree with his conclusion but I was very impressed with his fourth sermon.  This series is addressed to Adventists so the main thrust of his message comes from the Spirit of Prophecy by Ellen G. White and he gave quotation after quotation proving from the Spirit of Prophecy that we are one hundred percent sinners by nature.  I am not a sinner because I choose to sin.  I choose to sin because I am a sinner.  I am not a sinner because I commit sins.  I commit sins because I am a sinner.

It is true I can choose not to sin.  The Romans 7 man, whoever he is, has chosen not to sin but he calls himself (verse 24),

What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me [not from my choice but] from this body of death?

Let me put it another way.  Every one of us — including this African bush preacher — is one hundred percent sinner from head to foot saved by grace.

Now I do not mean that I am a sinner by performance one hundred percent.  None of us are sinners one hundred percent by performance.  But given the opportunity and the right circumstances any sin that you have seen committed in this world I will commit.  The fact that I have not done it is because of the grace of God.  I thank God when Adam sinned that God put restrictions to sin.  If He did not put restrictions to sin, this world would have destroyed itself and this human race would have destroyed this world long ago.  But I thank God, He has put restrictions.

Now if I look at myself as a one hundred percent sinner, then what is my attitude to others?  If I see somebody there committing an act of sin I do not despise him.  I say, “There go I but for the grace of God.” But if I am a legalist and I am not committing those sins I will look down upon him.  That is exactly what these priests and elders were doing.  They were looking down upon the prostitutes and the tax collectors.

You have the same problem in Luke 15.  There is the background for the prodigal son story.  Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners.  Do you know what the priests were doing?  They were murmuring.  “Look at him; he’s eating with sinners.  He’s linking himself with sinners.  We are self-righteous.” These chief priests and elders did not repent because they did not see the need of repenting.  “We are not sinners like these prostitutes.”

But Jesus told them their righteousness would not take them to heaven.  I have spent quite a bit of time trying to explain the issue if you read Psalm 15 out of context.  Psalm 15:

Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
He whose walk is blameless
and who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from his heart
and has no slander on his tongue,
who does his neighbor no wrong
and casts no slur on his fellowman,
who despises a vile man
but honors those who fear the Lord,
who keeps his oath even when it hurts,
who lends his money without usury
and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things will never be shaken.

The question that Psalm 15 poses is, “Who will be able to live in the presence of God?”  That is his basic question.  The answer comes, “Those who do righteousness.  Those who are blameless.”  How many of you are blameless?  Please read the text completely.  The answer is those who are blameless in heart.  He is not dealing with performance.  He’s dealing with heart.  A legalist is one who obeys God outwardly but his heart is far from God.  That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 15:8:

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.

When these prostitutes and tax collectors heard John the Baptist, they recognized they were sinners.  When Ninevah heard that they were sinners, they repented, because they did not deny the fact.  The man in Romans 7, even though he chose to do righteousness, discovered he could not do it because of sin dwelling in him.  So he cried out,

What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?

But I read in Revelation 3:17 about a people, the last generation of Christians, the Laodiceans:

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.”  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

If we would recognize that we are sinners, saved by grace, many things would happen in this church.  We would not be critical about others because we come from the same stock.  Plant the same apple seeds from the same apple; plant two apple trees (or let it be tomatoes or any vegetable).  Take the two seeds from the same stock and plant them in two separate places.  Give one a lot of food; deprive the other one of nutrients and give it very little water.  The results will be different.  One will bear big, juicy fruits; the other will be small and scrawny.  It is because of the environment, not because they are different at their very source.  They are identical.

We are sinners outwardly in acts based on environment, upbringing, inheritance, but at the very source we are the same.  None of us are better than the other.  We are all one hundred percent sinners and when John came and said, “Repent,” these elders and chief priests did not.  Why?  Because they thought they had no need of repentance.  “We are sinners,” said the tax collectors and prostitutes and they repented.

Christ is pleading with them and this is His final occasion.  That is why there is a very important word in the parable.  What did the father say to the two sons?  He did not say, “Please go and work in my vineyard.” He used a very important word.  He used the word “today.” By “today” He was trying to tell them, “Please, this is your last chance.  I am about to be crucified.  I am about to leave this earth.  Please do not reject the message of John the Baptist.  He came to show you the way of righteousness.  Repent.  Change your ways.  Work today.”

Matthew 21:28 reads like this:

“What do you think?  There was a man who had two sons.  He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

Please notice the urgency Christ reveals.  Now it is true Jesus was speaking to the elders and the chief priests.  What about us today?  Do you believe the end is near?  Do you believe that we are living in the final stages of this world’s history and God is saying to us, “Will you please go and tell the others the good news of salvation?”  Only those whose hearts have enjoyed the good news, only those who have repented and who realize that they are one hundred percent sinners saved by grace will want to go and work today.

The legalist will say, “Yes, we’ll work today.” They give lip service but no results.  Will you be the first son or the second son?  This is a problem that still exists today.  By nature we are born legalists.  Human beings naturally want to earn their way to heaven.  I don’t have to teach legalism; all I have to do is leave you alone.  I will use the illustration that I have used before:  I don’t have to do anything to grow weeds.  They grow automatically.  Don’t ask me where they come from but they are there.

When we were in Idaho my daughter had a horse and, when we left Idaho, the stable was full of horse manure.  I said to my daughter that maybe we should take some manure with us instead of buying some at our new location.  So our roof rack was loaded with horse manure.  That was the worse thing I ever did because we had a weed that grew very sharp thorns.  It looks like a pea but it has spikes in it and I had not seen it around where we moved but two and a half years later, having been away a month, I came back and saw those weeds growing in my garden.  I was horrified that I had imported something that I should never have brought there.  So I did my best to pluck them all out before they produced those awful thorns.

I thank God that the gospel of Jesus Christ is that He is the way of righteousness and my part is to repent and say, “Thank You, thank You for saving a sinner like me.” I can say with Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.

It is my prayer that this attitude will change our relationship toward one another; that we will not look down upon each other because all of us are sinners.  Given the chance we would do the terrible things that Hitler did, that Idi Amin did.  I pray that we will become like the prostitutes because remember in the parable what Jesus said in Matthew 21:31b which was devastating to these elders:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I can imagine in the judgment these elders and these priests will say to God, “But this is unfair.  Haven’t we cast out devils in Your name; haven’t we done wonderful works in Your name?” And God will say, “I never knew you.” Our works must be the fruits of righteousness by faith.

These very prostitutes and tax collectors who repented did not simply sit down.  These were the ones used by God to turn the world upside down after Christ went to heaven.  These were the ones who in Acts 8 went all over and preached the gospel to everybody because their hearts were transformed by the love of God.  They recognized they were sinners saved by grace.

It is my prayer that you and I will identify ourselves with tax collectors and sinners saved by grace and we will love each other and that we will help each other to walk in the way of righteousness is my prayer in Jesus’ name.

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