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The question for every nation, generation, and individual is “who is in charge: you or God”? We are never left in neutral territory. The world is divided, down the middle, of those who are obedient to Christ and his commands, or those who obey the moral code of the mob. As Christians, we must never leave off obedience to Christ for the sake of the traditions, fads, or fashions of men, no matter how noble they may seem.
And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things. But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.
Summary of the Text
This exchange between Christ and the chief priests comes right after some quite notable moments: the triumphal entry (vs. 1-11) and the clearing of the temple (vs. 12-13); Jesus then heals in the temple (vs. 14-16). The next day on his way back into Jerusalem he commands an unfruitful fig tree to whither, which it does, and then Jesus teaches his disciples on the power of believing prayer (vs. 17-22).
It is in the light of these episodes that Matthew presents us with the chief priests questioning Christ’s authority to teach (v. 23); Jesus responds to their question with his own question regarding John the Baptist’s origin (vs. 24-25); the priests huddle-up and come up with the ficklest of replies, “dunno” (v. 27). So, Jesus pointedly gives His answer by refusing to give the answer (v. 27) and by telling the parable of the two sons (vs. 28-31).
The father in the parable commands one son to go work in his vineyard (v. 28), the son refuses, then repents, and then obeys (v. 29); so the father commands the second son, who then gives lip-service to obedience, but in fact, simply does not obey (v. 30). Jesus then asks them which of the sons did the will of the father, and they acknowledge that it was the one which actually obeyed the father and went to work in the vineyard (v. 31); Jesus then summarizes the point: repentant sinners, not unbelieving Israelites, would enter the awaited kingdom of God (vs. 31-32).
Obedience & Authority
This parable is often used to moralize about how children should obey their parents the first time; but although that is an important lesson for children to learn, that is not what we are to take away from this parable. This is a parable about which authority we will obey, not whether we will obey at all.
The chief priests query Jesus as to who gave him the authority to teach; Jesus points to the ministry of John the Baptist to make the obvious truth (that Christ’s authority came from God the Father), even more painfully obvious. John’s ministry resulted in repentance, which David had proclaimed was what God most desired from his people in giving them the covenant signs: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps. 51:16-17).” But the chief priests were more akin to those who received Isaiah’s searing rebuke of the unbelieving and unrepentant Israelites of his day: “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men (Isa. 29:13).”
Despite the obvious heavenliness of John’s ministry, they had the more convincing signs of Christ’s ministry: the blind seeing, the lame leaping, the multitudes being fed, the dead being resurrected; but they quibbled over whether Jesus had the proper credentials, degrees, and qualifications to be teaching the people. Jesus simply points to the fact that both John’s ministry and His own were fruitful; whereas, the ministry of the priests and elders was marked by unbelief and unrepentant hearts.
From the beginning there has really only been two religions: the covenant people of God (marked by faith and repentance), and the unregenerate (marked by humanism & idol-worship). The first son in Jesus story, was outwardly rebellious, but later repents & obeys the father’s command. The second son, which we are to associate with unbelieving Israel, visibly and verbally seems to be quite the good little boy, whose cheeks the church ladies are wont to pinch; however, this son flat out disobeys and thus disregards his father’s authority. His disobedience shows a loveless heart, regardless of his flattering tongue.
We must either repent and believe, and be saved; or else pretend and be forever lost. At the end of the story, where do we find the two sons? The first son is precisely where the father desired him to be in the first place: the vineyard; the second son is, due to his disobedience, consequently found outside the vineyard. Notice where the father intends his sons to be: harvesting in a vineyard. The harvest of a vineyard brings the joy of the wine; but only the repentant and obedient son is found where the wine flows, and thus receives joy for his reward. Jesus shows us that the second son is left in the joyless misery of disobedience.
The question for us is, “Which son am I?” Jesus came to save sinners that repent of their disobedience, not sinners that feign obedience and never repent. The harlots and tax-collectors were the most dubious of sinners, but they repented when they heard the Gospel message. They knew they were disobedient to God’s law, authority, and standard; they were guilty as sin, but they repented, and submitted to the authority of God’s Word, and were found obedient to the Father. Jesus wants us to see the hypocrisy and false obedience of the chief priests in the second son; lip-service is not what He demands. Rather, loving obedience, faith & repentance are what He asks of us (Rom. 12:1, Mar. 12:33). As the Psalmist has it: “The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit (Ps. 34:18).”
A Great Commission
Matthew, in his Gospel account, is leading up to something. If we’re not careful we might stop short by dwelling on the crucifixion alone, rather than going on to what Christ redeemed by His cross-work and resurrection; namely, a commission, backed by all authority, to go into the Father’s vineyard of this world and preach the Gospel, teaching all nations to obey Christ’s commands (Mt. 28:18-20)!
It is impossible for there to not be a standard; the issue in every generation is from which authority that standard will be derived from. We will obey either the God of creation and how He made the world; or we will obey the whims of our depraved nature. Either God will be your God, or else Man will be your God.