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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 6

The Parable of the Two Sons

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 21:23-32
Mark 11:27-33
Luke 20:1-8

The religious leaders try to trick Jesus with a question but he returns with a question of his own. He tells the parable to show that sinners are entering the Kingdom, having accepted Jesus as Messiah.

The religious leaders try to trick Jesus with a question but he returns with a question of his own. He tells the parable to show that sinners are entering the Kingdom, having accepted Jesus as Messiah.


Hello, and welcome to this Series 11 and Episode 6. ‘The Parable of the Two Sons’ is the main part of our message today, but also there's another section, which is a debate between Jesus and some of the religious leaders, a questioning discussion that takes place. The text we're going to be studying is in Matthew 21: 23 - 32, which we'll read in sections as we go through.

Introduction and Recap

Hopefully many of you have been following the episodes in Series 11, and will be aware of the situation that we're in, in the story. For the sake of clarity, and for those who may not have heard all the episodes in Series 11: we're now in the last week of Jesus' life and we're on about Tuesday of that week. It started with the events of Sunday, which we call Palm Sunday now, when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem with a large crowd, riding on a donkey, and great acclamations from the crowd welcoming him as a messianic figure coming to redeem Israel. We discussed that at some considerable length at the beginning of this series. The stakes are high, because the religious establishment is preparing to take action against Jesus, to remove him from public life, to capture him, put him on trial, condemn him for breaking religious rules and laws, and hopefully hand him over to the Roman authorities to execute him, because they were the ones who had the power to do that legally. That was their plan. Jesus was well aware of it. That story we can see in different parts of the narrative as their hostility is increasing, and their readiness to take action is increasing. In fact, just before Jesus came in to Jerusalem in the Triumphal Entry, we read in John 11 that the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council, had met together in order to make plans, and had said to each other, in effect, that they couldn't wait any longer. They were going to need to arrest him. They'd thought of arresting him on a number of occasions, when he'd made brief visits to Jerusalem, but this visit is very different; it's very public, he's gathering crowds round him, and he's making very, provocative actions which they will have to respond to.

The two most provocative actions that he has carried out are, first of all the Triumphal Entry itself, where he gathered crowds around him and was a popular hero that day, and secondly, on the following day, on the Monday, he went into the Temple courts, as we saw an earlier episode, and he actually challenged the market traders there and stopped their trading. He interrupted their trading: he overturned the tables; he condemned them; he called them robbers; he said it was a ‘den of robbers’ in the Temple. They were extorting money out of people through money changing and selling animals for sacrifice at very high prices. This was a direct confrontation to the religious establishment and particularly the Sanhedrin, the council who ruled over the religion of Israel, and the priests, who ruled over the activities of the Temple. So, the situation is tense.

Meanwhile, Jesus is performing miracles still, and many of his miracles are having a big impact on people, not least the raising of Lazarus from the dead in a nearby village of Bethany, which took place just a short time before he came into Jerusalem. That was a really spectacular event, because Lazarus had been dead in the tomb for four days, and Jesus commanded the stone to be rolled away, and then commanded him to come out of the tomb, and then when his grave clothes were taken off he just walked away, completely restored to life and normal again. This had a sensational effect on people.

A Challenging Question

In the story so far, whilst Jesus has been in Jerusalem, he's been in control of events and taking the initiative all the way through. But here, for the first time, we're going to see the beginning of a challenge from the religious leaders and the technique they're going to use, is to ask Jesus difficult questions. This is the first of several and it's the first part of our story. Then it leads to ‘The Parable of the Two Sons’, which we'll look at in a moment. Matthew 21: 23,

‘Jesus entered the Temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”’

Matthew 21:26, NIV

Jesus returns to the Temple courts where he's been before, as I mentioned, both on the day of the Triumphal Entry and also on the day of the cleansing of the Temple. He was regularly teaching there. It appears from the account given in Luke, which I've mentioned in a previous episode but I'll just repeat it again, this is a general pattern for this week. Luke 21: 37 - 38

‘Each day Jesus was teaching in the Temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the Temple.’

Luke 21:37-38, NIV

They expected him in the Temple courts every single day, the people got used to this routine. Here we have it, that this is exactly what is happening. But the religious leaders are ready for him on this particular occasion and they challenge him with a question “By what authority are you doing these things?” - cleansing the Temple, miracles, and the like. Notice here it says ‘the chief priests and the elders of the people’. These are the most senior, religious leaders, the most senior members of the Sanhedrin, and the most senior members of the priesthood who looked after the worshipping life in the Temple. If the senior team is there then it looks as though they mean business, and they're going to challenge Jesus. They've had some devastating setbacks. They've had a number of popular events that have happened recently, which have made them look rather ridiculous, as they have stood on the side-lines disapproving, as this hugely charismatic and powerful figure, Jesus, has swept through the city with the remarkable things that he has done.


They want to trap him, in a question about authority. In any society authority really matters. Where do you get your authority from? It matters in politics, it matters in the military, it matters in education, it matters in business, wherever you are the source of authority is one of the crucial issues, and it matters in religion. Most religions are very concerned about preserving authority in their leaders, or in their traditions, or in their holy books, or in their religious practices. You can probably recognise that in your country, and in your society. Authority is a very important issue. From the point of view of the chief priests and the elders of the people, the answer to this question was very straightforward. Religious authority in Israel at that time, rested with the Sanhedrin; 70 men who were appointed to watch over the affairs of the Temple, and the conduct of religious life, and to interpret the Law of Moses and give updated versions of how those laws should be observed. They also had official communication with the Roman governor, and the Roman officials who were the political leaders in the country, and were given the right by the Romans to organise all the religious practice of Judaism. There were just a few things they couldn't do. One of them was, they couldn't carry out the death penalty. The Romans forbade them to do that. Anyone who they considered worthy of execution because of religious crimes would have to be handed over to the Romans.

But they recognised only one source of authority, the Sanhedrin. When they ask him the question “who gave you this authority?” they know perfectly well, that he cannot answer correctly, according to their calculations. He cannot say, ‘the Sanhedrin gave me the authority,’ because that's exactly the opposite of the truth. They didn't authorise him at all. If Jesus says that he comes under his own authority, that he's a self-appointed prophet, that doesn't work either, because you weren't allowed to be a self-appointed prophet. All prophets had to be tested by the higher authority, which was the Sanhedrin. If he says that God is his authority, then they will arrest him right then, because he's claiming to be the Messiah. The Temple guards, no doubt, were in the background, because the Temple had its own little police force operating, known as the Temple guards. We see reference to them several times in the Gospels. They'd have him arrested, and then they'd have him tried. They'd wanted to trap him in a question that would enable them to arrest him, and interrogate him in their own Sanhedrin religious court.

Jesus Responds With a Question

What's Jesus going to do when asked a difficult question? Any answer he gives is going to get him into trouble. He can't say the Sanhedrin authorised him, he can't say he is self-authorised, and he can't say God authorised him without being arrested immediately. But notice Jesus' approach, verses 24 - 25:

‘Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”’

Matthew 21:24-25, NIV

Interesting tactic - answering a difficult question with a counter question. It was a common technique of Jewish debate amongst religious teachers or rabbis. The question is, ‘What about John the Baptist?’ He's forcing them to give an answer about what they think about John the Baptist. You see, John the Baptist's ministry had made a sensation across the nation of Israel. Obviously, John had been executed by this time, but everybody remembered his ministry. He had a huge impact. I'm just going to read you a few verses from Matthew 3, that describes the impact. Matthew 3: 5 - 6:

‘People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan.’

Matthew 3:5-6, NIV

People came from all over the country including, notably, Jerusalem. He was popular and he challenged the religious authorities. Matthew 3: 7-8,

‘But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”’

Matthew 3:7-8, NIV

He challenged the religious leaders and he pointed to Jesus, to Jesus' authority and identity.

‘“I baptise you with water,”’ (verse 11), ‘“for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”’

Matthew 3:11, NIV

He points clearly to Jesus, and then when Jesus appears at the River Jordan, John baptises him. Then Jesus himself, in Matthew 11: 9 - 10, identifies who John is, as a prophet predicted in the Old Testament.

‘“Then what did you go to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”’

Matthew 11:9-10, NIV

That's a quotation from Malachi 3: 1. Jesus identifies John as that predicted messenger or prophet, who is predicted in the Old Testament, to come at a later time to prepare the way for the Messiah. The religious leaders opposed John at the time, and then they opposed Jesus.

The Answers

What answer are they going to give to this tricky question? They know it's a trick question. They know it's going to be a difficult one to answer. Matthew 21: 25 - 27,

‘They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn't you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don't know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”’

Matthew 21:25-27, NIV

He trapped them with his counter question. He trapped them with a question that they couldn't answer without either being threatened by the crowd, or acknowledging the authority of John. They're caught in a dilemma. This is the first round of a series of debates between the religious leaders and Jesus, based on trick questions. We'll see some more coming up in future episodes.

Parable of the Two Sons

Jesus goes straight on from that to make another important point through this parable, ‘The Parable of the Two Sons’, verses 28 to 32:

‘“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and he went.Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him”.’

Matthew 21:28-32, NIV

This is a simple story aimed at the religious leaders, the ones who'd been questioning Jesus, and all those who were represented by them. You see, the Jewish, religious leaders verbally said, ‘Yes’ to God, but when it comes to the actual decision about Jesus they then say, ‘No’. ‘Yes we believe in God's will, we believe in the Messiah, but you're not the Messiah. So, they're like the second son in the story who says the right things about God, but doesn't obey the way of God when it comes to the reality of their lives and decision time. Whereas prostitutes and tax collectors, generally speaking, said, ‘No’ to religion in Israel in those days. They weren't involved in religion. They didn't go to synagogue. They didn't bother with all the religious traditions. They lived their sinful lives, but when they heard John preach, John the Baptist, when they heard Jesus, they changed. They started out saying, ‘No’ to God, but when confronted by Jesus they said, ‘Yes’ to Jesus. So, they're like the first son, who looked as though he'd made the wrong decision, but eventually he made the right decision. He said, ‘No, I'm not going to go and work’, but later on he changed his mind.

Jesus' question is basically, ‘Is it what people say about God that counts, or is it what they actually do with their lives?’ The religious leaders were saying all the right things. They were going to the Temple and worshipping, carrying out the sacrifices, praying, fulfilling all the religious festivals, leading the other people in prayers and worship, but they have said, ‘No’ to Jesus as Messiah, very firmly. They'd made that decision a long time before this moment. They were going to validate that decision when they tried Jesus just a couple of days later. But the prostitutes and tax collectors, representing those who are far away from God, are originally not interested but when they heard the truth proclaimed, they believed and repented and changed. It says that they became followers. A parable has a central point of meaning and that's very easy to see in this parable. The religious leaders are like the second son and the irreligious, sinning population are like the first son. It's the people who carry out faith in real life who are the ones who do the right thing, even though they might start out in the wrong place and say the wrong things initially, because they simply don't understand. Once they do understand they get on and they obey, they have faith and they trust in Jesus as the Messiah. A shocking reality is being presented by Jesus to these religious leaders. They were the ultimate, respected leaders of the country and everyone honoured them and respected them officially. Tax collectors and prostitutes were outsiders, socially excluded, disapproved of, immoral and yet it's the tax collectors and prostitutes who are coming into the Kingdom, while the religious leaders are turning their back on Jesus, turning their face against his claim to be the Messiah. It's pretty hard-hitting stuff. We're in the period of Jesus' life of real ongoing conflict with the religious leaders. This conflict has been building up for a long time and now it's just coming out into the open so clearly and so decisively, and Jesus is telling the truth very clearly, and his opponents are trying to trip him up very decisively. They won't be giving up after this setback here, because they were humbled by the fact they couldn't answer Jesus' question. They had to retreat. They were humiliated really in the front of the crowd. But they'll be back. It won't take long for them to come back, because they're absolutely determined to get rid of Jesus, and to do so as quickly as possible. They're looking for an opportunity to arrest him.


A simple story, aimed at religious leaders, and it meets the mark. Just thinking then about the implications of this part of the story. The first thing that occurs to me, by way of a reflection, is the importance of John the Baptist in Jesus' ministry. It's very easy to forget about John the Baptist, because he's executed in the middle of Jesus' ministry, and he's not featuring in these crucial events now, because he's died. But John the Baptist really prepared the whole nation to receive Jesus. His message alerted the whole nation to the fact that God was on the move, and something significant was shortly going to happen in Israel. He was very courageous. He was remarkably called from childhood, being a relative of Jesus, and then committed himself to a life of simplicity, living in the Judean wilderness area, a bit like a hermit living alone for much of the time, as far as we can tell, until God called him to come back into mainstream society. He set up camp, so to speak, on the River Jordan not far from Jericho, at a place called ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan’ and he spent a long time there, preaching to people, as they came by on the main road going north and south. Crowds began to gather from all over the country, as I've indicated, by the quotation I gave you from Matthew 3, earlier on. He was a sensation. He awakened the nation to the fact that something important was about to happen and he made that connection very clearly by explaining that it was the person of Jesus who was the key. When Jesus came down to the Jordan, he pointed out, unambiguously, that this is the one who's going to baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He said, on another occasion around that time, “Behold! the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. He points out Jesus' forthcoming death, substitutionary and sacrificial, atoning death for the sake of the people.

This reminds us that prophetic ministry is important today. In the New Testament we find that prophets are still active in the Church today. They don't have the same authority as the biblical prophets. Their messages are always under the authority of Scripture as the highest authority, but they can hear the voice of God, and they can bring a sense of the presence of God, and bring the reality of his purposes much more specifically and closely to hand.

Another thing we learn from this passage is that entry into the Kingdom of God is not based on social status, it's not based on religious orthodoxy, it's not based on good works, it's based on repentance and faith. Even the simplest person, even a person who's messed up and made a complete mess of their life, and is immoral, can be saved. Jesus affirms this time and again in his teaching. The outsiders can come in: the Samaritans; the lepers; the tax collectors; the sinners; and the people on the outside of Jewish society. If they turn from their sins and have faith in Jesus the Messiah, they enter into God's Kingdom on the same basis as anybody else.

We've seen a recent example in the narrative, and that's the example of Zacchaeus, the tax collector in Jericho, who we encountered at the beginning of Luke 19 in the last series. The man, who was the chief tax collector, who had extorted huge amounts of money out of the population, made himself very wealthy, but his life was empty. He had a spiritual quest to try to see Jesus. As Jesus was travelling along the road he went up a tree, Jesus called him down by name and went to his house, told him what he needed to do to change, told him he needed to believe in Jesus as Messiah, and he changed! He started giving away his possessions to the poor, paying back money to people he'd swindled and stolen off. The outsider came in. ‘The tax collectors and prostitutes are coming into the Kingdom’.

Which brings us to my final point. One thing in the parable that I find encouraging is, it's never too late to change your mind. The son who said, “No father, I'm not going to go and work in the vineyard”, changed his mind. What time of day did he change his mind? We don't know. He was asked to go and work in the vineyard early in the morning, probably, as we saw in the parable of the workers in the vineyards. Work started at 6 o'clock in the morning, ended at 6 o'clock at night, roughly speaking, during the harvest season. So, early in the morning his father would have woken him up and said, ‘Son, come and work.’ He said, ‘No.’ When did he change his mind? 10 o'clock in the morning? Midday? 2pm? 4pm? We don't know. It could have been 4pm. It could have been late in the day. But he decided to go and work in the vineyard. Even late in the day, in your life, when much of your life has already been lived and many mistakes have been made, much sin has been committed, you can still be like that first son. You said, ‘No’ in the past but you can say, ‘Yes’ now. And you can receive salvation through repentance and faith. This is the good news of the Gospel. Thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Authority is a very important issue. What examples of authority are there in your culture?
  • Discipleship
    1. The story shows the fact that anyone can come to Jesus at any time. Pray for those you are reaching out to you - that they would make the decision to follow Jesus
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Jesus was asked about who had given him authority to speak and act as he did. Look at the role of the Sanhedrin at that time.
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