This little parable (Matt. 21:28-32) from Jesus is more complicated than it first appears. It seems pretty cut and dried when compared with the other parables of Jesus that tend to shock us or twist the meanings of words and situations. This one seems straight forward, the first son, who says “no” to his father, but eventually goes and works in the vineyard seems to be the one who does the will of his father. The one who says “yes” but then shirks his duties is the scoundrel.
To our 21st century American ears, it’s pretty easy to determine which of the two sons did the will of the father. The first one. However, to the ears of the listeners of Jesus in first century Palestine things were a bit more complicated. In a way, both sons brought shame and disgrace to the father. The first son commits the heinous sin of saying no directly to the face of his father. In a culture where family hierarchy was more stratified, this is an unpardonable offense, even if he changes his mind. To publicly say “no” to the face of one’s father was one of the worst things the first son could have done. And his going and working in the vineyard, to the minds of the earliest Christians who would have heard this gospel message from Matthew, would not have made up for or atoned for his betrayal of the father.
Perhaps as Christians we are accustomed to the notion of second chances, forgiveness, and atonement. We know that God gives us the freedom, the room, to reconcile ourselves to God. We are accustomed to living in a Christian world where actions speak louder than words.
However, not so with first century Palestine. As, I’ve said, the affront to the father would have been shocking to these first hearers of Jesus message. So, when asked who had done the will of the father, the average listener in the time of Jesus would have been in a real predicament. It seems at first blush, that neither son did the will of the father, and in fact the first son was the more severe sinner in boldly saying no. The earliest listener of Jesus would have thought that Jesus was presenting them with a trick question, a question with no answer.
But it’s no trick question. Jesus provides the answer—an answer just as scandalous as the later statement that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious leaders of the day. The answer is, that in spite of the rejection of the father in the first instance, the first son somehow accomplishes the will of the father. This would have left his audience flabbergasted—The first son, the son who committed the unpardonable offense of rejecting the father? How could he have done the will of the father—that’s impossible—he rejected the father. Who cares if he went and worked anyway. He grievously offended the father.
And this is Jesus’ point. This is the teaching moment of this parable. There is no sin so grievous that we don’t get a second chance. That’s why Jesus gives us the example of the prostitutes and tax collectors—two groups of people seen as monstrous sinners in first century Palestine. Those of these groups who repent and turn away from their old lives are forgiven and are seen as doing the will of the father. For them, the kingdom of heaven is reserved.
So what do we take away from this parable today? How will this parable help our own spiritual journey?
First of all, it helps us recognize that we are all sinners—neither of the sons was perfect in their response to the father. We do sin.
Secondly, once we recognize our sin, we are miraculously given a second chance, a chance for repentance. God gives us the space, like the father in the parable, to change our minds and indeed go to work in the vineyard. God grants us the freedom to change the direction of our lives. Some may say that free will is a curse and life would be easier without it. However, without free will we are incapable of accepting God’s grace and unable to change for the better. Free will is a blessing, not a curse.
Thirdly, there is no sin to grievous for God to forgive. The son who rejected the father to his face, the unforgivable sin, was eventually hailed as the one who had done the will of the father because of his eventual acceptance of the invitation to work in the vineyard. We Christians seem to know this—God will forgive anything—but few of us Christians seem to apply this logic to ourselves. I think we all have in our minds that there are some sins that we commit that are just too bad, too much for God to handle.
There are some sins that, especially the sins we commit over and over, God just gets tired of forgiven. We become ashamed of ourselves and grow weary with the constant need for conversion, and we simply give up, since we think that God has given up as well. Rubbish. God does not give up on us. Jesus went to the cross for our sake. That’s not the action of a God who is easily exasperated or frustrated with us. That’s the action of a God who has infinite patience and grace.
So we do sin. But the shocking message of scripture says that God ignores our sin and pays much closer attention to how we respond to his invitation to work in the vineyard. So, let’s roll up our sleeves, stop judging ourselves unworthy of God’s forgiveness, and get to work.
Jeff Johnson, S.J.