‘What d’you think?’ he went on. ‘Once upon a time there was a man who had two sons. ‘He went to the first one and said, “Now then, my boy, off you go and do a day’s work in the vineyard.” “Don’t want to,” replied the son; but afterwards he thought better of it and went.
‘He went to the other son and said the same thing. ‘”Certainly, Master,” he said; but he didn’t go. ‘So which of the two did what his father wanted?’ ‘The first,’ they answered.
‘I’m telling you the truth,’ Jesus said to them. ‘The tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into God’s kingdom ahead of you! Yes: John came to you, in accordance with God’s covenant plan, and you didn’t believe him—but the tax-collectors and prostitutes believed him. But when you saw it, you didn’t think better of it afterwards and believe him.’
(Translation by N T Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2, SPCK, 2004, 74)
1. The Gospels are translated by referring to a number of manuscripts. For example, in regard to this parable:
a. “There are some confusing textual variants, with three main groups of MSS. One has the first son saying ‘I won’t’ but changing his mind and going, with the second saying ‘I will’ and doing nothing …. A second reverses the order of the two, with the first agreeing to go but not going and the second refusing but then changing his mind and going ….; (this is supported by urging that if the first son went there was no need for
the second to go, but this is not conclusive since we do not know how much work there was to do). The third group has the first son saying “I won’t” but in the end going, and the second saying “I will” but not going; but in this group the answer to the question “Which did the will of the father?” is “the second” …. We can surely dismiss the third group as making nonsense of the parable, but it matters little which of the first two we accept.” (L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 536)
2. This parable of the two sons is unique to Matthew.
3. 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:
a. 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);
b. Then this parable of the two sons is given (21:28-32), followed by the parable of the wicked husbandman (21:33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14) – each parable 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.
4. In verse 29 we read of the son who initially said “No” then “he changed his mind”. The Greek word is metamellomai (μεταμέλομαι).
a. The word metamellomai shares an etymology with the verb metanoeo (μετανοέω) and the noun metanoia (μετάνοια), both of which carry the idea of heartfelt repentance and an inner transformation that leads to a different way of being in the world.
b. Matthew has used the verb metanoeo to describe the message of both John the Baptist (3:2) and of Jesus himself (4:17).
5. Jesus accuses the religious leaders of being unwilling to “change their minds”.
a. By comparing the religious authorities unfavourably to “the tax collectors and prostitutes” – people the religious authorities despised – Jesus is being particularly confronting.
b. 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 (ἐγώ κύριος). 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.
c. 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.'”
d. Jesus and his message are necessarily in a given historical, cultural and religious context but they are not of that context. They cannot be identified with, adequately contained or effectively
constrained by any human structures, even those which people might claim to be of divine origin.
e. The implication seems to be that Jesus demands we abandon all forms of dogmatism, legalism, institutionalism and moralism. (If history is any guide, we find it desperately difficult to do this.)
i. The relevant distinction here is between means and ends. Creedal formulae, legal structures, institutions and moral systems are means to an end, never to be regarded as ends in themselves. They are necessary but not necessarily ultimate or absolute. To absolutize them is a form of idolatry. When we absolutize the relative, we necessarily relativize the Absolute. This is the worst of all sins.
ii. 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.)
iii. And so we hear Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
6. So what is the essence of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders? One scholar focuses on fundamental human flaw which, at the risk of being a little simplistic, might be called egotism:
a. “It is hardly news that there was a very profound clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and that Paul’s conversion instigated a dialectic no less violent. But later Christian animosity has badly distorted the true nature of this confrontation. Pharisees are described as hypocrites or as uncaring legalists and inhuman externalises who imposed on others burdens they themselves would not bear. Most of which is inaccurate, unhistorical, and purely polemical. If Pharisees were such, how is one to explain their tremendous power over people for whom they had only the authority of competence? In fact, the Pharisees were superb moral guides. But there precisely lay the problem which Jesus and Paul saw so clearly. Apart from the damage such caricatures have done to Judaism and the relationship of Christianity to it, there is another very serious result within Christianity itself. When Christianity is no longer aware of what Jesus and Paul were fighting against in Pharisaic Judaism, it can hardly be conscious of a similar presence within itself. The debate did not concern good law as over against bad law or even internal and sincere law as over against external and hypocritical law. The challenge of Jesus and Paul was this: obedience does not lead to God, but God leads one to obedience. The question is not God or law, covenant or commandment, faith or works, but, granting both, in which direction does the arrow fly from one to the other? It must be emphasized that this is not a debate
between Judaism and Christianity but a conflict within them both, and a conflict ever ancient and ever new. So, according to Jesus and Paul, it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible, not a good life that made the reward of God’s presence inevitable. …. as Ernst Käsemann has said so succinctly: ‘The righteousness of God does not presuppose our obedience; it creates it’. The problem was not so much that one might not be able to obey the law’s excellence but that one might actually do so to perfection and thereby be unable to tell one’s own perfection from God. What exactly were Jesus and Paul fighting? In a final quotation from Käsemann: ‘the community of “good” people which turns God’s commandments into the instruments of self-sanctification’. The enemy was neither stupidity nor hypocrisy but sincerity all too sincere and perfection all too perfect.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 80-81.)
b. Complementing Crossan’s observation, we could note the universal human capacity for self-deception:
i. Perhaps this is why Socrates (through Plato) promoted self-reflection: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. (Plato, “Apology” in The Dialogues of Plato, The Jowett Translations, ed Justin D
Kaplan, Pocket Books, 1951, 24 and 34)
ii. The Christian tradition has urged “examination of conscience”, lectio divina, conversatio morum and so on in service of “self-knowledge”; St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) writes in her classic book on the spiritual life, The Interior Castle (1:9): “I repeat that it is good, indeed very good, to try to enter first into the room where self-knowledge is dealt with rather than fly off to other rooms. This is the right road, and if we can journey along a safe and level path, why should we want wings to fly? Rather, let’s strive to make more progress in self-knowledge.” Significantly, Teresa then adds: “In my opinion we shall never completely know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God.”
iii. I recommend: Gregg A Ten Elshoff, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.
iv. Perhaps there is (sometimes) more true faith in honest doubt than passionate conviction? The energy of good momentum can become entrapped by inertia.
Jesus and his message can be domesticated by individuals and groups.
It is possible for us to become disconnected from the living memory of Jesus we confess. Then, instead of our lives being living memories of Jesus, they may become statements of forgetfulness – even without us knowing that is what they are. Perhaps with us protesting, in good faith, they are actually about Jesus.
This might happen through selfishness, laziness, busyness or simply the inertia of a routinized life. It might also come about – and this is a terrible irony – because we are deeply committed to the Christian life but, over time, have become so focused on the institutional, doctrinal, moral and legal demands of it all that we miss the reality and demands of Jesus Christ present and active in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
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.)
In 1968, while in the seminary, I read something similar: “I have no liking for Christians who will not touch the facts of human existence for fear of soiling their hands. The Christians who struggle to make Christianity effective in the world, even at the cost of painful blows, those I admire. I love that Church that plunges into the thickets of human history and is not afraid of compromising itself by getting mixed up in human affairs, in political conflicts and cultural disputes. I love that Church because it loves people and therefore goes out to look for them wherever they are. And I love best of all that Church which is mud-splashed from history because it has played its part in history, that Church of the poor which is denounced for its weaknesses by Pharisees whose hands are clean but who can point to no single person they have saved.” (Jean Danielou, Prayer as a Political Problem, Burns & Oates, 1967, 55.)