Historical Cultural Context
Doing the Will of the Father
A Christian missionary in the Middle East used to share this parable about the two sons (Mt 21:28-30) with villagers that he visited and asked: “Which was the better son?”
The vast majority answered that the son who said yes to his father even though he did not go to work in the vineyard was without doubt the better son. The son’s reply was honorable and respectful. It was what the father wanted to hear. That he never went to work in the vineyard is beside the point, which in the Middle East is always honor.
Remember that life in the Middle East is very public. Honor, the core value of this culture, requires such publicity. The dialogue between the father and his sons in this parable takes place not in private—just between two at a time—but rather in public, within view and earshot of many villagers. Like their modern-day descendants, the Middle Eastern villagers in this parable favor the respectful but disobedient son over the disrespectful but obedient son.
The Ideal And The Real
All cultures distinguish between the ideal and reality, but the gap between these two is greater in other cultures than in the ancient Middle East, generally speaking. Westerners generally believe that the ideal is the norm by which reality should be judged. If reality does not measure up to the ideal, it is flawed.
Some Middle Eastern cultures prefer to blur the line between the ideal and the real. Like modem Middle Eastern respondents to Jesus’ parable, the ancients too would believe—against reality—that giving an honorable answer is enough. In their mind, conforming to the ideal of speaking respectfully is sufficient to fulfill the commandment to “honor one’s father [and mother]” (Dt 5:16).
Jesus did not ask which son behaved honorably. He asked: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Mt 21:31). Modern Middle Easterners would certainly echo the judgment of Jesus’ listeners: “The first,” that is, the one who ultimately went and worked in the vineyard as he was directed by his father. They recognized the importance of obedience, but the honorable appearance was more important.
Jesus addressed this parable to the chief priests and elders (Mt 21:23) who approached him while he taught in the Temple and asked for his credentials: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” “We, the legitimate Temple authorities, didn’t commission or license you.” They challenge Jesus’ honor.
The parable of the two sons serves Jesus as a master strategy for defending his honor and presenting a counter-challenge to his adversaries. The point of the parable was quite clear to the listeners. With his explanation, Jesus rubs salt into the wound his parable has opened.
The toll collectors and harlots are like the first son. Initially they said no to God, but hearing John the Baptist’s preaching they converted and are doing what pleases God.
The chief priests and elders are like the second son. They too heard John’s preaching and saw the responses of the toll collectors and harlots. They feigned acceptance but refused to accept John as a messenger from God. They gave an honorable word, but that is not enough. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the reign of God, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
Is this what Americans mean when they identify some religious people as hypocrites?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University