The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31)


Jesus said “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

My friend Kon used to say ‘the more I see of kids today, the more I think about getting a dog’. Then he had a son. He doesn’t say that quite as much any more. His other great saying was ‘I love children, but I can never finish a whole one’. He doesn’t say that much any more either. He might think it sometimes. I don’t know.

I’m told that insanity is something that you inherit from your children, instead of the other way around. And I read in the paper all the time about how it just costs too much to have children, which is ironic, because people in poorer countries seem to manage with lots of children.
The thing I really don’t understand though is why, when there are so many complaints about children and about having children, that people keep having them. Perhaps it’s because everyone quietly believes that their kids are going to turn out just perfect, like mine have (well, I suppose I’m biased).

The truth is that sooner or later most of us parents do strike the sort of attitude we find in today’s parable, where you ask your son ‘hey son, how’s about helping dad out by washing the car this weekend’ and the boy looks up at you and says ‘get stuffed’. And so you make the same request of his younger brother, and he says ‘Yeah, no problem dad. I’ll be right on to it. Don’t you worry.’ But come Monday morning the car is as dirty as ever and the young guy is nowhere to be found.

Then, lo and behold, you get home in the afternoon and it has been done (by son no.1 as it turns out). He felt bad about speaking to you like he did, and was a bit fearful of the consequences, so he did it on the quiet, and he was going to get around to apologising to you too and talking it through with you, but he thought he might not worry about that just at the moment. And so life in the average Australian dysfunctional home continues on as usual�

My point is that neither of these two sons is anything to crow about. That’s true enough when you transplant the parable into our own culture. It is even more obvious in a Middle Eastern context, where saying ‘no’ when your father asks you for help is like telling him to drop dead! There’s nothing particularly impressive about either son.

So Jesus does not ask ‘which of the two boys was a good son to his dad?’ because neither of them is particularly impressive. Instead He asks ‘which of these two did the will of his father?’ and it is clear enough that this has to be the first son, who is considered to be the better of the two by Jesus.

Jesus then says ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you Pharisees and religious people’, which suggests to us that Jesus believes that saying the right thing and sounding right is less important than doing the right thing and acting right.

Let’s pause there for a moment, because this is not something that we should just brush over as if we all already knew that. The truth is that most people think that being a Christian is all about what you think. Christianity is a philosophy of life – a series of beliefs about life, death and the universe.

I’m always talking to people and inviting them to church, and the standard response I get is ‘Oh, I don’t believe in any of that’. Others say things like ‘I used to believe all that stuff when I was a kid but now I believe in evolution.’

Conversely, I suspect that if we ask the average person in the church what it is that makes them a Christian, I think that they will also answer in terms of their beliefs – ‘that I still believe what I was told as a kid and that I don’t believe in evolution’. In a Sydney Anglican context of course we might expect that those beliefs would be spelled out a little more succinctly:

I believe that I am a sinner, and as such stand under the judgement of God.
I believe that Jesus died for my sins, taking my place upon the cross.
I believe that by the blood of Jesus I am justified, sanctified and homogenised, etc.
Either way, what makes me a Christian and you not a Christian is a matter of what is in our heads and what is in our mouths – the thoughts we have and the words we speak. The parable suggests though that, in Jesus’ understanding, God may be less concerned about what’s in our heads and in our mouths as He is about what we’re doing with our hands!

Mind you, the most depressing response I ever get when I invite people to church is the one that goes ‘Yeah, I believe all that, I just don’t go to church any more.’ At least the first two responses, which say ‘I don’t think the same way you do’ sort of admit that if they did think the same way I did, that it would make some difference in the way they lived. The final response suggests not only that Christianity is about what you think, but that it is only about what you think, and that believing these things need make no difference to the way you live. This is of course akin to the approach taken by the second brother. He thinks that helping dad is very important. He believes in the value of work for the soul. He believes that when your dad calls you to action you should answer immediately ‘yes sir’. He just doesn’t then go on and do anything about it.

I remember one baptism interview. The couple invited me over for dinner, and they listened while I told them about God and the Bible and about how baptism was about welcoming new members into the church. We looked at the promises they had to make: ‘are you yourself a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of his church…’ We talked about what this meant – about how God called us to serve Him with our whole lives…. Then something finally clicked and the father said – ‘you don’t mean that we have to go to church do you?’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘it’d be a start’.

We don’t have this problem in other areas of life. I don’t think anyone ever attempts to join a football team unless they want to play football. I can’t imagine that anyone would go to the trouble of turning up to the trials, trying out, signing up, and doing all the work involved only to then say ‘you don’t mean I have to play a game do you? I only joined because I liked wearing the jersey!’

People have often asked me what do we expect of members of our church community here, and it’s probably about time that we spelt it out again more clearly in black and white. I’ve always spoken in terms of three ‘one’s’ – one worship service, one small group and one ministry. Join us for one worship service each week, attend one small group each week, and be involved in one form of ministry within the parish. I didn’t make up this list. I think it’s a pretty standard sort of list. I think I first heard it spelled out like this by the pastor of Gymea Baptist (for what that’s worth). Even so, a lot of people do respond to this by saying things like ‘that’s a bit much isn’t it?’ And I tend to say something like ‘well, Jesus said he expected us to sacrifice our entire lives to Him. Our list is really only suggesting that a small chunk of that commitment be directed through the church.’

It’s easy of course to get self-righteous about the failings of all those other ‘slackers’: ‘They make their baptismal vows and then they never follow through with them. They turn up twice a year but they never give of their time and resources. They say the words but they don’t follow through �’ Keep in mind that the parable is primarily targeted at good and committed church people of his time.

I’ve quoted Daniel Via before, who says that a good parable is like a window. We look through the parable and see things in a different way, and then at some point we catch our own reflection in the window. We wouldn’t be honest here if we didn’t see a little of ourselves reflected in the second son.

We are the persons who are saying all the right things, yet failing to do what we are called to do. When people look at the church in Sydney what do they see? They don’t see Mother Theresa and the sisters of charity. They see a group of people who think differently from them.

If people looked at us and saw Mother Theresa and the sisters of charity they probably wouldn’t say, when I asked them to come and join us for worship, ‘I don’t believe those things.’ They’d probably say something like ‘I not sure I want to get into anything like that.’ That’s the same sort of thing they used to say to members of the early church when they got invited to worship. People lived in fear of the early church, we’re told. They felt confronted by it, challenged. They called the early Christians the people of ‘the way’. And it was a way that most people did not feel comfortable with – a way of self-sacrifice and suffering, a way of community and poverty.

I don’t think that the Salvos have the same problem we Anglicans have. When people think of the Salvos they do think of a way of sacrifice and caring. The problem the Salvos have is just the opposite of ours – no one thinks of them as a church (which reflects the same perception problem)!

If it’s true that the second brother is found in the church, it follows that the first brother, like the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus refers to, is to be found outside of the church. And don’t we know that to be true. Have not many if not all of us found that the most generous, caring and sacrificial people are often persons whose knowledge of God and of Christ is off with the fairies!

There was a time when I was embarrassed to tell people about how we financed our Youth Centre. People always say ‘I suppose the church pays for all that, don’t they’, and I’d have to say ‘No. Our church here just doesn’t have the resources to support this work, and as far as the Church with a capital ‘C’ goes, they haven’t been a great help. No. Our support comes mainly from the three local pubs and the local RSL club. Yes, there are some very generous people running these ‘dens of iniquity’ who are happy to pour their resources into supporting God’s work. That’s just the way it is!

When I think of all the support we’ve had from dodgey boxing promoters, publicans and sinners, and politicians of dubious motives who would never darken the door of a church, I wonder if this isn’t Jesus’ way of letting us know that these guys are marching their way into the Kingdom ahead of us!

I think back to guys I’ve known in alcoholic homes who’ve offered to share their last smoke with me, when it’s the only thing of value they have left in the world, and I know that I have never been that generous to anyone. I think of my friends Alex and Lane Tui, whose theology is less than inspiring, but who take in children off the streets because their parents are in prison, and I know that I have never made a sacrifice of that magnitude for anyone. And I think of people who’ve stood by me in time of crisis and who have shown real loyalty and love, and they’re not always church people.

In the end, as we said at the beginning, both brothers have their problems. The first brother, though he does the right thing, still needs to show respect for his father. He should be saying the right things. He should be in church. And maybe if he was in church, he could set an example for the rest of us second brothers so that we could learn the real meaning of faithful service of the Father.

That’s enough for today. I don’t want to give you too much to think about, for it’s not about thinking. It’s about doing. So let’s go and do.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 14th October 2002. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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