“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 will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.(Matthew 21:28-32 – NRSV)
This parable is unique to Matthew.
“With the debate about John’s authority (21:23–27) Matthew presents the first of five controversies between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem (see also 22:15–46). The series of debates is interrupted by three parables (21:28–22:14).” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 300.)
Following the observation by one scholar that “the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions” (M Kähler – cited by Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, Crossroad, 1986, 189), we note the mounting tension in Matthew’s Gospel at this point. Firstly, Jesus has given his third prophecy of the passion (20:17-19); the Messiah has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11); Jesus has expelled the dealers from the temple (21:12-16); the religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority (21:23-27). Then we have the three parables dealing with the theme of Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish authorities, the very ones who should have led the way in receiving him and his message: today’s parable of the two sons who are asked to go and work in the vineyard (21:28-32), followed by the parable of the wicked husbandman (21:33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14).
he changed his mind: The Greek word is metamellomai. This word metamellomai shares an etymology with the verb metanoeo and the noun metanoia, both of which carry the idea of heartfelt repentance and an inner transformation that leads to a different way of being in the world. Matthew has used the verb metanoeo to describe the message of both John the Baptist (3:2) and of Jesus himself (4:17).
This willingness/unwillingness “to change one’s mind” is central to the Gospel of Matthew and this parable in particular. Jesus levels a strong accusation at the religious authorities: “you did not change your minds and believe him”. As a result “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. Everything is turned on its head! We can assume that the religious authorities would have felt very uncomfortable with this message.
I will go, sir: The response of the second son (verse 30) – who said “Yes” but then refused to go – is very formal and polite. The Greek is ego kyrios. Assuming that this “second son” refers to the religious leaders, there is a not so subtle irony in this polite formality. By way of contrast, the response of the first son – “Don’t want to,” – is utterly lacking in politeness and formality; in fact it would have been offensive for the son to speak to his father in that way. Jesus wants to leave the religious authorities in no doubt as to the point of this story. Again the riff raff are seen to be more real and faithful to the Covenant than the religious authorities.
We are reminded of the blunt words in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
Yet Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus is thoroughly Jewish, utterly at one with the tradition the religious leaders claim to identify with and teach. Matthew calls Jesus “Servant of God” (12:18-21 – from Isaiah 42:14), “Shepherd” (9:36; 10:6; 12:9-14; and so on) and “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7:11-14). “All the major Christological titles in Matthew’s gospel have deep roots in Jewish tradition and contribute to the picture of Jesus as thoroughly Jewish.” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 1991/2007, 18.)
The second last story in James Joyce’s The Dubliners is called “Grace”. The main character in this story – Mr Kernan – is an unhappy man. His friends conspire to take him to a retreat to see if that will set him back on the straight and narrow. The Jesuit retreat preacher takes as his text Luke 16:8-9: “For the children of this world are more astute etc.” The story ends with the words of the preacher: “But one thing only, he said, (Jesus Christ) would ask of his hearers. And that was: to be straight and manly with God. If their accounts tallied in every point to say: ‘Well, I have verified my accounts. I find all well’. But if, as might happen, there were some discrepancies, to admit the truth, to be frank and say like a man: ‘Well, I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God’s grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts’.”
The preacher’s advice is straightforward moralism, sadly too common in our tradition. It is the very thing that Jesus found objectionable in the religious authorities of his day. The image of God as auditor of accounts does not match the revelation of Sacred Scripture. This God cannot be bought with a behavioural balance sheet. The message of the preacher runs headlong into the title of the story. I daresay the irony was no accident on Joyce’s part.
Pope Francis has something to say about all this: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).” (Evangelii Gaudium, November 2013, #49.)
The Gospel offers a choice: The way of grace or the way of moral accounting. Interestingly enough, the riff raff do not have any difficulty in accepting this way of thinking. The religious authorities, so entrenched in their moralistic approach to the Covenant, are unable to change their minds.