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The Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:2832 An Exegesis

NT 501: The Synoptic Gospels Rev. Stephen Salocks

Paul M. Nguyen Congregatio Oblatorum Mariae Virginis December 3, 2012

Nguyen 2 The Gospel According to Matthew presents a well-organized account of the ministry and message of Jesus Christ, with a rich thread of what it means to be a disciple. 1 In the moral codes that are presented at length through sermons and parables, and the several opportunities to rebuke the Pharisaic school, the author of Matthew shows his audience how best to pursue righteousness: by coming to know and follow the will of the Father. 2 This uniquely-Matthean pericope (21:2832) embodies these elements and draws readers to answer its challenge in their own lives. The author of Matthew places the parable of the two sons,3 not found in the other Gospels, after a controversy over Jesus authority, as challenged by the scribes and pharisees. It is followed by two additional parables and four additional controversies, but already lends hermeneutical value to these texts; 4 It functions as a bridge between what precedes and what follows. The style of argumentation found in this passage parallels that found in the Old Testament episode of 2 Samuel 12, in which the prophet Nathan explains by a parable that David is guilty and deserving of punishment for his sin.5 In a characteristically-Semitic presentation of morality (cf. Mt. 25:3146; Didache), the Matthean parable presents two contraries, but when the pharisees (and David) answer the key question to identify the preferable moral way, they become trapped and convicted by their response in their own lives. There is a notable manuscript difference in this pericope. Relative to the NRSV and GNT, some manuscripts present the sons in the opposite order (according to what they say and do) and the response to Jesus question becomes: the second. However, the common version (NRSV
1 2 3 4 5 Jack Dean Kingsbury, Jesus Christ in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Proclamation Commentaries, ed. Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 75. Ibid. Matthew 21:2832 (New Revised Standard Version; UBS Greek New Testament rev. 4) Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel Harrington (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 30001. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 247.

Nguyen 3 and GNT) is to be preferred so as to preserve the credibility of the narrative: the father would have no reason to ask his second son if the first had already agreed, 6 though the alternative could be justified in that the father would have asked both sons regardless of their responses. Here is an outline of the passage, showing the parallel construction of its two halves: I.
28

What do you think? A man had two sons;

A. he went to the first and said, Son, go and work in the vineyard today. 29 He answered, I will not; but later he changed his mind and went. B. II.
31 30

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? They said, The first.

A. Jesus said to them, Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. B.
32

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.

The parable of the two sons takes the following form. It opens with a general interrogatory sentence inviting consideration of the parable (v28). We learn that the characters in the parable are a father and his two sons; the father gives the instruction to the first to work in the vineyard. In the next verse, the first son, the one addressed, responds in the negative, but we are told that he does, in fact, go to work (v29). Then we are told that the father approached his other son with the same instruction (not repeated in the text); he answered in the affirmative, but did not, in fact, go to work (v30). Jesus then solicits the judgment of his hearers, the priests and elders in the temple; they acclaim the first son to be the one who did his fathers will. Jesus confirms their judgment but adds that tax collectors and prostitutes are proceeding them into the kingdom of God (v31). Jesus magnifies his conviction of the elders by repeating his previous
6 Hare, Matthew, 247.

Nguyen 4 addition, adding the testimony of his forerunner, and adding even one more statement of their obstinacy to repent (v32). Let us explore some of the key words found in this passage. In Jesus closing condemnation of the priests and elders persistence in their ways, he shows that when John came (in the way/path of righteousness/justice, v32), even long-habitual sinners (tax collectors and prostitutes, v32)7 believed him, but the elders refused. The concept of is variously translated as righteousness or as justice throughout the scriptures, with a suggestion that social applications of the term might prefer justice in translation.8 Matthew seems to use the term consistently to refer to right conduct before God, 9 in accordance with His will, and this case is no exception: Jesus clearly sets before His hearers the two ways, identifies the one that conforms to the fathers will, and then, by application, commends them to it, using Johns example as further proof. Another term used significantly in this pericope is the Greek (to change ones mind or to regret/repent). It occurs in v29 in a third-person usage and again in v32 in the second-person plural. In scripture, repentance typically employs the term , and there is evidence within scripture, as well as in the writings of Philo, that denotes changes of heart in the presence of the divine, and that has a broader usage, signifying any repentance or change of habit.10 Here, we can see that very natural and human usage in v29 as the first son goes to work in the vineyard contrary to his verbal refusal, and the repetition of the same term in v32 not only reflects the textual unity of the pericope but
7 8 9 The Navarre Bible: St. Matthew, ed. Jos Mara Casciaro, trans. James Gavigan (Four Courts, 1988), 176. Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., justice in Harpers Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 519. Rudolf Bultmann and Dieter Lhrmann, dikaiosn in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 589. 10 Rudolf Bultmann and Dieter Lhrmann, metamlomai in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 589.

Nguyen 5 exaggerates Jesus opponents non-repentance all the more: not only did they withhold their repentance from the divine, but from even common things. This style of argumentation, while hinted in the text from 2 Samuel, has further significance in its semitic and rabbinic setting. Langley argues that the two sons embody two out of four alternatives in the schema that is established. The remaining two would be a son who agrees to work and does, and one who refuses and does not. These obvious cases should have been apparent to Jesus audience of learned men in the temple, and would have been all the more convincing, when, as his discourse progressed, they realized how they would be trapped.11 Langley introduces the principle of qal wmer, in which an argument is made such that, if by lacking an element, something is true, then by having it, the latter condition is true all the more.12 Here, where each sons actions contradicted his speech, the tax collectors and prostitutes both believed John and repented (the double-positive), but the elders neither changed their minds, nor believed (the double-negative). And so the four-fold schema is satisfied.13 Matthews gospel is saturated with references to the disciples and demonstrations of true discipleship, and this parable fits perfectly. As Kingsbury demonstrates, the two great pillars of discipleship in Matthew are: (1) doing the will of God; and (2) knowing the will of God. These correlatives of knowledge and praxis are pervasively exemplified in this passage. Knowledge is present from the opening words: ; (What do you think? v28). Within the parable itself, the audience comes to know both the will of the father and whether each son knows it. Knowledge is a foundational assumption in the central question that Jesus asks: they may not answer which did the will of his father unless they know it. And belief, the intellects assent to grasp something beyond its capacity to prove, is included no less than three
11 Wendell E. Langley, The Parable of the Two Sons, CBQ 58, no. 2 (1996): 238. 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid., 241.

Nguyen 6 times in the closing verse of this pericope. Of course, the correlative of praxis is likewise present throughout. The first son does his fathers will while the second does not. Again, the question Jesus poses in v31 centers on who did the will of his father. The example of John the Baptist is given as one who did the Fathers will (the way of righteousness, v32), and the tax collectors and prostitutes followed his example of that will. As it is often useful to consider the cataphatic alongside the apophatic, having established Jesus conviction of the priests and elders in the temple, let us consider what positive value Jesus judgment of the elders could have. The conclusion and judgment He presents in v32 seems to suspend their capacity to change. However, placed within the greater context of the Gospel message of mercy, along with the precedents of the first son and the tax collectors and prostitutes having favorably changed their minds, it would seem that the possibility of conversion still lingers. When we couple this with the understanding of the term (in contrast with ), it seems further that not only the supernatural conversion by grace and divine inspiration is warranted, but also a repentance on the most familiar grounds and most commonplace aspects of their experience. Jesus challenges the priests and elders to engage not only in the focused but also in the broader : a changing of their minds about their entire lives. Though this interpretation lends a message of hope, Matthews Gospel, consistently condemns the pharisees with little to no chance for repentance. At a first reading, and for children, the story seems to validate the colloquial idiom actions speak louder than words. The audience given voice in this passage understands that we will know them by their works (cf. Mt. 7:20). It is possible to judge the two sons by two factors: (1) their speech, and (2) their deeds. Yet, we have a unanimous consent that their deeds weigh more heavily than their words; otherwise, it would be the second son who does the will of his

Nguyen 7 father and walks in the way of righteousness. And so it is that the slogan gains validity: it seems it is easier to mis-speak and repent of it than to act improperly and repent of it, for actions are the more severely judged. Finally, consider the example of disciples. John the Baptist is an obvious subject for this discussion since he is named and associated directly with righteousness (though on the way, v32). And certainly he serves this role. But by the time John is mentioned, a crowd of disciples have already been exposed: the tax collectors and prostitutes (v31). Even more significantly, Jesus tells his audience that these are going ahead of [them]. This can be understood in at least two ways: (1) they have found the way of righteousness and followed it temporally prior to the temple elders; or (2) they proceed the elders into the kingdom, leading them by example. If the second is to be adopted, we ought to consult the Greek. The precise term used for going ahead is , whose roots etymologically mean to lead before, not simply to go ahead. Understood this way, the temple elders are invited to get on the kingdom train and follow the believing and repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, who in turn, follow John, who came in the way of righteousness, if only they would believe and change their minds. As we are often struck by stories of profound conversion, repentance, and recovery, let us consider how we can make that story our own and follow after those who have committed themselves to growing in knowledge and love of God, following His will and leading others on the way of righteousness into the eternal kingdom of God.

Nguyen 8 Bibliography Achtemeier, Paul J., ed. Harpers Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985. Bultmann, Rudolf and Lhrmann, Dieter. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged. Edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985. Casciaro, Jos Mara, ed. The Navarre Bible: St. Matthew. Translated by James Gavigan. Four Courts, 1988. Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox, 1993. Harrington, Daniel. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 1, Sacra Pagina. Edited by Daniel Harrington. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991. Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Jesus Christ in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Proclamation Commentaries. Edited by Gerhard Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981. Langley, Wendell E. The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:2832) against Its Semitic and Rabbinic Backdrop. CBQ 58, no. 2 (1996): 228243.