The Parable of the Two Sons which is unique to the Gospel of Matthew is probably one of the most easily understandable of all the parables of Jesus. It describes a situation we can all identify with and one that we surely all have experienced.
It is a parable about obedience and disobedience. It is about compliance and rebellion. It is about changing one’s mind in a positive way and changing one’s mind in a negative way. It is fundamentally about the choices we make in life.
Yes, we can all identify with the basic story and we can certainly recognise times in our lives, particularly in our childhood, when we have played the roles of first one brother and then the other.
And every parent can see their own children doing the same sorts of thing and it probably irks them greatly. But if the parents are even moderately mature they don’t get too upset because they know that children need from time to time to rebel and exercise their independence and understand that in time the children will learn from their actions and so grow in maturity.
Parents also realise that on other occasions their children will appear to be obedient and compliant but then neglect to do what they have promised. The parents understand that this is a form of passive-aggression and that this too is something that children will grow out of on their way to full adulthood.
But of course, these kinds of attitudes are certainly not restricted to children or teenagers. We frequently meet people in the workplace who exhibit similar behaviour and often enough we find ourselves on occasion doing the same sorts of things.
From time to time we need to reflect on our outward behaviour and gradually put in check such immature attitudes in order to grow into our full stature as mature human beings. Although we also recognise that it is much easier to spot these things in others than it is to see them in ourselves.
Important though these issues are, we realise of course that the parable is intended by Jesus to work at an entirely different level. When Jesus asks the Priests and Elders, “Which of the sons did the father’s will?” we realise that he is actually talking about how his listeners are behaving in relation to the will of God the Father.
Clearly Jesus is implying that they are like the second son in the story who says that he will do his father’s will but actually does not. And he contrasts their behaviour to that of tax collectors and prostitutes who have repented and received John’s baptism.
It seems that Jesus chooses these two groups of people to deliberately irk the Chief Priests and Elders. Both groups are guilty of serious sin: the tax collectors because they cheat and extort money from the people and the prostitutes because they are guilty of sexual licentiousness.
We can se how these two types of sin would be particularly abhorrent to the priests and anyone connected to the Temple.
But these two groups also represent something else deeply repellent; namely collaboration with the Romans, the occupying power, the colonisers. The tax collectors are gathering money for the Roman authorities and the prostitutes are providing other kinds of services for their soldiers. Both are therefore collaborators, both are betraying the nation.
This Gospel text today is actually the second of three consecutive parables about vineyards presented to us in the Lectionary.
Last week we heard the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and next week we are presented with the Parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard. All three of these parables are clearly addressed to the Jewish authorities and are meant to expose their deep hypocrisy and their ultimate refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah and the message of his Gospel.
As we see from the pages of the Gospel this annoys them intensely and arguably provokes them into the actions which led to the death of Jesus.
It might be said that by deliberately challenging the religious authorities Jesus is bringing forward his death on the Cross. But while this might be partly true we can never say that he was in some perverse way responsible for his own death.
Jesus maintains his integrity throughout his ministry, he remains true to the values of the Kingdom and he speaks out because he simply cannot remain silent.
It could be said that by using parables he was being remarkably restrained, because by means of parables he was telling the truth but in a veiled way.
Through reflecting on the deeper meaning of the parables the truth gradually dawns on the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, it exposes their own inconsistencies and their use of religion to achieve power and their own self-aggrandisement.
The only trouble with the use of parables by Jesus is that they echo down through the generations with just as much power as when they were first spoken, and they challenge us modern day hearers just as much as they challenged the people of his own day.
These parables sit in judgement on us even as we are gathered here around this altar. They are addressed to you and to me right now. And if we are guilty of hypocrisy they will surely find us out.
Yes, they will find us out and yet they also provide us with a way out and this is admirably put in the very last line of today’s Gospel: “think better of it and believe in him.”
God always gives us the chance to think better of our words and actions and attitudes; he always reaches out to us, and he always invites us to repent of our errors and to believe in him.
God is constantly there for us showing us the true path. Even in our most deeply sinful moments, even in our times of most profound doubt and rejection, he is there holding out his hand to us, inviting us to have faith and trust in him.
He wants above all for us to accept his Gospel of love and to begin to live a new and better life; a life of integrity, faith and justice.