Year A: Twenty-Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Two Sons

Matthew 21: 28-32

“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, “Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As you reflect on your life, do you identify with either of the brothers in today’s parable? Explain
  2. When you contrast your intentions with your actions, in what ways do you see yourself saying “no” to God?
  3. How do you determine whether you are, or are not doing God’s will?
  4. Is it possible that your mind is so made up about things, that you miss the presence of divine activity and fail to do God’s will? What could be done about this?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

As we follow Matthew’s Gospel, the Lectionary skips over Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and moves us directly into his final teachings. We are now in the final section of the Gospel, so we can imagine the teachings we will be hearing from now until the end of the year as taking place during Holy Week.

Jesus tells today’s parable immediately after a debate with the chief priests and elders. When they challenged his authority, Jesus asked them to make a public statement about their opinion of John the Baptist. When they refused to be trapped into telling the truth, Jesus refused to answer their questions about himself. He told this parable instead.

Jesus addressed the parable to the very folks who had avoided his question about John. This time they got caught in his trap; they listened to the parable and ended up with no decent escape from his final question. A parable of a man with two sons started them off in familiar territory — that plotline had begun with Adam and went through Abraham and Isaac and on through their own experience. It could have even resonated with the comparison of John and Jesus. But, Jesus took the idea and developed it in his own style, making the turning point the punch that would expose the real situation of his audience.

If we interpret the parable in its cultural context it is more complex than it appears at first glance.

Culturally, the first son was a rude rebel. In a society where saving face was highly valued, the son who said “I will not,” wounded his father’s dignity and shattered his family’s reputation. He effectively put himself outside the family circle. In contrast, the second son honored the father, even to the point of addressing him as “lord.” Any observer would have seen that son as exceeding the ideal of filial respect.

Then comes the twist. The deferential son had only a veneer of respect for his father. He might keep things pleasant in the house, but the family business would fall apart under his do-nothing lifestyle. The insolent son actually demonstrated more family commitment than his hypocritical brother. Far from perfect, he was the one who repented. (The word translated as “changed his mind” is translated as repent in other passages and comes from the same root as metanoia.)

With this parable, Jesus pointed out the distinction between what might be called orthodoxy and orthopraxis, between saying the right thing and doing the right thing. His implication was that saying the right thing, following the rubrics, can become nothing more than a façade, leaving a people who look good but accomplish nothing for God. In contrast, doing the right thing will lead to understanding what is right and being able to say it as well.

What is your opinion?

By Ted Wolgamot

In today’s Gospel, Jesus states the very question posed in this article’s title. Amazingly enough, he seems to want feedback! Jesus wants to know, not just what the leaders of the temple thought back then, but what you and I think right now.

So, what is your opinion? What do you think of this story that he proceeds to tell about the two sons who are sent out to work in a vineyard?

Here’s my opinion: You and I are both of these sons. At times we’re people who say all the right things, follow all the right rules, profess a belief in all the most important ideas about God and church, and present ourselves as upstanding citizens for all to see. At other times, we change our minds and find ourselves slipping into behaviors that imply a denial of all that we profess to believe. In other words, we’re the “Yes, sir” people who then “did not go” in today’s Gospel.

Sometimes. At other times, we’re the people who resist what we know to be the right thing to do. We’re the “I will not” person of today’s Gospel who “afterwards changed his mind and went.”

So, we’re a mix. Sometimes we say one thing and do another. Other times, we refuse to do the right thing, but then repent and seek forgiveness.

Here’s another opinion of mine: Where you and I stumble the most is precisely in the area that Jesus keeps emphasizing over and over — our attitudes and behaviors toward the very people Jesus claims will be first in the kingdom of God — the people the Jewish leaders at that time considered unclean; the people they believed should be avoided at all costs, ignored, dismissed from the temple, and viewed as impure.

Two millennia later from the time in which this Gospel was written, these very same people are the ones we still tend to designate to be “impure”: the homeless, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the immigrants.

And yet, these are precisely the ones Jesus embraced; the ones he allowed to wash his feet with their tears and dry them with their hair; the ones he told us would be first in the kingdom of God.

How can this be? Why would Jesus choose them?

Most of us, after all, would have the opinion that we’re the hard-working ones; we’re the ones who have demonstrated will power and obedience and strength of character — and all those other qualities that make for good citizens and loyal churchgoers.

Perhaps the opinion of St. Paul in the beautiful and poignant reading from Philippians we hear today will suggest a response to this statement: “Have in you the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus … who … emptied himself taking the form of a slave.”

All the people listed in the Gospel by Jesus as being first are those who are powerless, “emptied” people. They are people who have been brought to their knees by terrible hardship even to the point of being forced to “take the form of a slave.”

But, here’s the surprise: What little they do have in their lives is the very thing Jesus is most looking for — room for God. They now have the space for the Spirit to become operative so that true transformation can take place.

This was the opinion of Jesus: The people most pre-disposed to radical change in their lives were those who had nothing to lose, people who were not just hungry, but starving for liberation and transformation.

So, in the end, my opinion is still the same as that of Paul: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus … who … emptied himself taking the form of a slave.”

What is your opinion?