The gospel story concerning the two sons and the vineyard that is offered in today’s readings is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. It follows the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple and the questioning by the chief priests and elders. They questioned Jesus about his authority, but when he turned the challenge towards them and their opinion about John, they refused to take any stand on the authority of John and his Baptism. So they backed themselves into a corner that they did not foresee, and in a sense fell into their own trap.
The two who were asked to go to the vineyard to work were not hired workers who would have had no option, but they were ‘sons’ who belonged, and who had a choice. The vineyard was a recognizable image. Not only was it the setting of the recent parable of the day laborers, but, for the Israelites it represented themselves. They were the vineyard that God had planted, that sometimes produced a strong yield, and sometimes nothing.
Having heard the little story about the two sons and their father, it was a ‘no-brainer’ to choose which one had carried out the father’s wishes. This was the easy part of the test. However, the challenge and problem was in recognizing who these two stood for. The responses and actions of the two sons were reversed. The one who refused carried out the father’s wishes, and the one who said ‘yes’ did not. In the same way Jesus pointed out the reversal of order in the groups that those two really represented.
The story is indeed about doing the will of God, and being willing to change to do God’s will. The tax collectors and prostitutes were willing to change, for they had repented at the preaching of John. However, the audience here, whom we assume were the chief priests and the elders, did not have that willingness. They had not accepted the baptism of repentance of John. They had never declared themselves sinners like they had done for the tax collectors and prostitutes, so they probably did not think they had a need to repent and change their ways. In this story Jesus puts these two groups on a par. Like the two sons, they both belong. In Jesus eyes there is no outcast group. However, the reign of God only belongs to those who can repent and change their lives. Those who see no need for repentance have cast themselves out. It is a common theme in the Gospel. We are familiar with phrases like ‘I came to call sinners’ and ‘not everyone who says Lord, Lord, enters the kingdom of God’.
Two sons and two groups, but only one of each carried out the will. Just in case anyone is stressing about what that will of God might be, this gospel passage puts it plainly: Repent.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP