Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus Verse by Verse...

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Digression 18: The Two Sons (Mt. 21:28-32)

For those Palestinian peasants, politeness and respect to your father was paramount. Even if you didn’t obey your father, you had to be polite to him. Rudeness to your father or public disobedience to him was the worst thing you could do, and you shamed yourself. The Lord turned that understanding on its head in His parable of the two sons in Mt. 21:28-32. He taught that the better son was the one who rudely refused to do what his father asked, but later relented and did it. The Lord saw this son as better than the one who politely agreed, and yet never fulfilled his promise. Perhaps that parable needs reflection upon today, where ‘nicespeak’ has become paramount- so long as you say something nicely, what you actually are saying and what you do isn’t so important. How we speak is of course important; but it can be exalted to the point where words rather than real action become paramount. But that aside, the point is that both the sons were extremely rude to their Father. And he was the most loving, self-sacrificial dad that two kids ever could’ve had. We feel hurt for the lovely old boy. One element of unreality is that he only had two sons- a small family for those days. How tragic that both his sons went so wrong and rebelled against him. And we sense something of his hurt, our heart starts to bleed for him, and we think of our Heavenly Father’s hurt. And then the penny drops- those two boys are us.  
There is a highly repeated theme in the Lord's parables. It is that he saw his people as falling into one of two categories: the sinners / spiritually weak, and the self-righteous. This isn't just the possible implication of one or two parables:

The sinners / weak

The self-righteous

The prodigal son (each of us) who genuinely thought he had lost his relationship with his father (cp. God) for ever (Lk.  15:11-32).

The elder son who said he'd never disobeyed his father (cp. God), and who in the end walks away from his father.

The sinner who hasn't got the faith to lift up his eyes to God, weighed down with the weight of his seemingly irreversible sins (Lk. 18:1-8).

The man who looks up to God with what he thinks is a good conscience and thanks Him that he is better than others, feeling that the sinful brother praying next to him is somehow too far gone.

The weak labourer (no employer wanted to hire him) who works one hour but is given a day's pay for it. We are left to imagine him walking away in disbelief clutching his penny (cp. the faithful with salvation at the judgment) (Mt. 20:1-16).

The strong labourer who works all day and complains at the end that the weak labourer has been given a penny. "Go thy way..." (Mt. 20:14) could imply he is fired from the Master's service because of this attitude. This would fit in with the way the other parables describe the second man as the rejected one.

The builder whose progress appeared slow, building on a rock, symbolising the difficulty he has in really hearing the word of the Lord Jesus.

The builder who appeared to make fast progress (Mt. 7:24-27), who apparently finds response to the word very easy.

The (spiritually) sick who need a doctor, represented by the stray animal who falls down a well and desperately bleats for pity (Lk. 14:5 RSV).

Those who don't think they need a doctor aren't helped by Christ (Mt. 9:12)

Those with a splinter in their eye, from God's viewpoint, who are seen as in need of spiritual correction by other believers (Mt. 7:3-5).

Those with a plank of wood in their eye, from God's perspective, but who think they have unimpaired vision to see the faults in their brethren.

Those who guard the house and give food to the other servants (Mt. 24:45-51).

Those who are materialistic and beat their fellow servants.

The man who owed 100 pence to his brother (Mt. 18:23-35), but nothing to his Lord (because the Lord counts him as justified).

The man who owed 10,000 talents to his Lord, but would not be patient with his brother who owed him 100 pence. He had the opportunity to show much love in return for his Lord's forgiveness, on the principle that he who is forgiven much loves much (Lk. 7:41-43).

The man who takes the lowest, most obscure seat at a feast is (at the judgment) told to go up to the best seat. We are left to imagine that the kind of humble man who takes the lowest seat would be embarrassed to go up to the highest seat, and would probably need encouragement to do so. This will be exactly the position of all those who enter the Kingdom. Those who are moved out of the highest seats are characterised by "shame", which is the hallmark of the rejected. Therefore all the righteous are symbolised by the humble man who has to be encouraged (at the judgment) to go up higher.

The man who assumes he should have a respectable seat at the feast (Lk. 14:8-11). Remember that the taking of places at the feast represents the attitude we adopt within the ecclesia now. It is directly proportionate to Christ’s judgment of us.

The spiritually despised Samaritan who helped the (spiritually) wounded man.

The apparently righteous Levite and Priest who did nothing to help (Lk. 10:25-37).

The men who traded and developed what they had (Lk. 19:15-27).

The man who did nothing with what he had, not even lending his talent to Gentiles on usury; and then thought Christ's rejection of him unreasonable.

The son who rudely refuses to do the father's work, but then does it with his tail between his legs (Mt. 21:28-32).

The son who immediately and publicly agrees to do his father's work but actually does nothing. The Father's work is saving men. Note how in this and the above two cases, the self-righteous are rejected for their lack of interest in saving others (both in and out of the ecclesia).

The king who realises he cannot defeat the approaching army (cp. Christ and his Angels coming in judgment) because he is too weak, and surrenders.

The king who refuses to realize his own weakness and is therefore, by implication, destroyed by the oncoming army (Lk. 14:31,32).

Those who think their oil (cp. our spirituality) will probably run out before the second coming (Mt. 25:1-10).

Those who think their oil (spirituality) will never fail them and will keep burning until the Lord's return.

It makes a good exercise to read down just the left hand column. These are the characteristics of the acceptable, in God's eyes. Reading just the right hand column above (go on, do it) reveals all too many similarities with established Christianity.
The Lord’s parables describe those He will save as the son who refused to go to work, but later went, sheepishly aware of his failure; the sheep that went away, i.e. those Christ came to save (a symbol of us all, Mt. 18:11,12 cp. Is. 53:6); the lost coin; the son who went away and sowed his wild oats, and then returned with his tail between his legs. Christ expects that we will fail, as grievously as those parables indicate. Yet we have somehow come to think that they refer either to our follies before baptism, or to those within our community who publicly disgrace themselves. Yet they describe all the faithful. But is there that sense of contrition in us, really? Aren't we more like the elder brother, or the son who said "I go, Sir, but went not"?