Let the Scriptures Speak
Which of the two did his father's will? (Matt 21:31)
To whom does Jesus address this sharp little parable of the two sons? In the preceding episode, Matthew states that they are the chief priests and the elders. On the day after Jesus' dramatic action in the Temple precincts, these high officials have come to challenge Jesus' authority for "doing these things," apparently referring to Jesus' clearing the Temple area and continuing to hold teach-ins on the Temple grounds (the officials’ turf, so to speak).
Jesus turns the tables on his questioners. He asks “Where was John's baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” Was Jesus dodging their question? No. He was exposing his questioners’ hypocrisy. They were not making an honest enquiry in order to take a stand. Matthew makes this clear by telling us what the chief priests and elders said among themselves. “If we say, ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they say to Jesus, “We do not know.” Thus Jesus' question has exposed the fact that these men are not really concerned about divine authority; they are simply maneuvering to protect their own power. Had they really been concerned about divinely given authority, they would have recognized it in John the Baptist.
Against that background, the parable of the Two Sons is clear. In the Scriptures, a vineyard is an image for Israel itself and the owner is God (e.g., Isaiah 5). If anyone is commissioned by the Owner to “go out and work in the vineyard,” it is surely the religious leaders. When the chief priests and elders affirm that the one who did his father's will is the one who, though he initially said no, later goes to work, they condemn themselves, as Jesus spells out in his application (Mt 21:32).
“When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.” In this, the tax collectors are like the first son (the no/yes one); for in their former way of life, they were naysayers to the will of God, but they eventually did the will of God by responding in repentance to the preaching of John the Baptist. In one way, the leaders seem to reflect the performance of the second son, in that, as religious leaders, they were ostensibly keepers of the law of God. But, since the immediate context entails the responses first to John and now to himself, they are “none of the above.” That is, the chief priests and elders have been closed to God's authority both when it was mediated by John and also now as it is mediated by Jesus. So they are worse than either of the two sons in the parable. Intent only on holding on to their own human authority, they have become hard of heart, unresponsive late and soon to God's mediators. Yet, Jesus' confrontation does not slam the door on his listeners. He says that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God “before you”—not instead of you. Conversion is always possible.
This parable gives us an insight into why “the poor” are congratulated in the first Beatitude. The religious leaders became distracted from acknowledging the authority of God and doing his will because of their attachment to the power of their human authority. Tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, despite whatever minor financial and erotic power they may have possessed, were sufficiently aware of their limitations to be open to the power and authority of God when they encountered it in John and in Jesus.
Very likely, most of us feel we would have been among those who responded well to Jesus’ exercise of authority, had we been alive in early first-century Galilee and Judea. It might be a good meditation for us to try to imagine how we would have responded to John the Baptist. Would we have given a good listening to that strange man of the wilderness, dressed in animal skin, snacking on locusts and inviting people to a dunking in the Jordan? Though John and Jesus were very different men—one a dedicated to fasting and the other dining regularly with tax collectors and sinners—those who were drawn to Jesus were the same ones who gave John a hearing.
**From Saint Louis University