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Grant Osborne: This is a parable about rejection and unbelief, a reluctance and yet a final willingness to do the Father’s will (the tax collectors and sinners) vs. an initial willingness and yet final refusal to follow his will (the leaders). It imparts the message that it matters more “what one does” (the tax collectors and sinners) than what one is (the religious leaders). . .

The allegorical elements are clear: the father is God, the vineyard is his kingdom community, the first son the outcasts, and the second son the leaders. The sinners turned against God for much of their lives but have now come back to God (and entered his vineyard) by turning to Jesus. The religious officials originally agreed to do God’s will but have now turned their backs on God by rejecting his Son. The obvious turning point in both cases is Jesus. . .

The leaders and the sinners show the contrast between those who say they will follow God, yet never come to faith and obedience, vs. those who initially reject but find repentance and belief, then do the Father’s will. The other aspect is that it is the despised members of society rather than the religious elite who are willing to do so.

Stu Weber: Jesus had struck the first of three blows against the credibility of the leaders of Israel—against their qualification to serve as the shepherds of God’s people. In spite of the religious show they put on and their claims to be obedient to God, they had rejected the mission God had given them (see Ezek. 34). They were guilty of neglect and abuse of God’s flock.

D. A. Carson: The shock value of Jesus’ statement can be appreciated only when the low esteem in which tax collectors were held, not to mention prostitutes, is taken into account. In our day of soft pornography in the media, we are not shocked by “prostitutes.” But Jesus is saying that the scum of society, though it says no to God, repents, performs the Father’s will, and enters the kingdom, whereas the religious authorities loudly say yes to God but never do what he says, and therefore they fail to enter. Their righteousness is not enough (cf. 5:20). Thus the parable makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile but between religious leader and public sinner.

Walter Wilson: Insofar as it illustrates the need to both hear and do what God requires, the parable in 21:28–31 reinforces the main point of the parable Jesus had used to conclude the Sermon on the Mount in 7:24–27.

Donald Hagner: Doing the will of the Father, for Jesus, is more than simply a matter of words; it is always a matter of deeds (cf. esp. 7:21–27; 25:31–46). It is one thing to say one does or will do the will of the Father; it is another thing actually to do it. Words alone mean nothing. A certain claim of serving God and being faithful to Torah went with being the religious leadership of the Jewish people. Yet in fact these leaders were not obedient to God. They had not heeded the message of John the Baptist, just as they now opposed the message of Jesus himself. But the paradox lay in the fact that the despised sinners, the tax collectors and harlots—those with no claim to righteousness whatsoever—believed both John and Jesus. Thus they, rather than the “righteous” establishment (cf. 9:13), were entering the kingdom of God. They who knew themselves to be desperately needy of grace were the ones open to it and thus the ones who received it.

Daniel Doriani: The parable teaches two lessons.

  1. First, anyone can come to Jesus through repentance and faith.
  2. Second, it is never enough to make promises to God, or to claim to believe, or to recite a creed. What counts is actual devotion: love of God, worship, and loving service to others.

In almost every church there are pretenders. Pastors rarely know who they are, but the Lord knows and he will reveal the truth to all who are willing to hear.

It is simple enough if the Lord is nudging someone to give up his or her charade. They need only repent of their pride and deceit, then heed his call to love and serve him. Why should anyone wait? There may never be a better time to get right with God. Let no one think he will repent later. If anyone chooses to deafen himself to God’s call, later may never come.

Ray Fowler:  This is the ultimate meaning of the parable of the two sons. Repentance and faith are more important than outward religious show. It doesn’t matter if you say you believe in God if your actions don’t show it. Repentance trumps religion every time. A true conversion involves repentance from sin and turning to God in faith through Jesus his Son.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how religious you are. If you do not repent and believe in Jesus, you will not enter the kingdom of God.

And, it doesn’t matter how sinful you are. If you do repent and believe in Jesus, you will enter the kingdom of God.

What you say and what you do matters. If you truly believe in God, you will do what he tells you. And he tells you to repent of your sins, and to put your faith in Jesus his Son.


But what do you think?

Grant Osborne: The introductory “What do you think” occurs often (17:25; 18:12; 22:17, 42; 26:66) and asks the listener (here the leaders) to ponder carefully what Jesus is saying. In this sense it is similar to an “amen” (ἀμήν) saying (e.g., 21:21, 31) in pointing to an important truth. Through it we the real readers are also invited to think carefully about the story’s message.

Ray Fowler: Jesus begins by asking them, “What do you think?” Jesus was often interactive as a teacher – asking questions, probing people’s thoughts and motivations, helping people to dig deeper beneath the surface. Here he engages the religious leaders up front and lets them know he wants their feedback on what he is about to say.

Keith Throop: Context: Jesus had said He would tell them by what authority He did the things that He did, but only if they first answered His question about John the Baptist. Since they didn’t want to give Him a straight answer to His question, He followed through on what He said and gave them no answer to their question.

Yet He doesn’t simply drop the matter. Instead, He tells a short parable and continues to question them in order to highlight the real issue, namely their unbelief.


(:28b)  The Situation

A man had two sons,

A.  (:28c-29) The First Son of False Profession

  1. (:28c) Command of the Father

and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’

  1. (:29) Hypocritical Response of the First Son

And he answered and said, ‘I will, sir’; and he did not go.

William Barclay: This parable teaches us that promises can never take the place of performance, and fine words are never a substitute for fine deeds. The son who said he would go, and did not, had all the outward marks of courtesy. In his answer, he called his father ‘sir’ with all respect. But a courtesy which never gets beyond words is a totally illusory thing. True courtesy is obedience, willingly and graciously given.

B.  (:30) The Second Son of Genuine Repentance

  1. Command of the Father

And he came to the second and said the same thing.

  1. Repentant Response of the Second Son

But he answered and said, ‘I will not’; yet he afterward regretted it and went.


A.  (:31a) Self Incrimination

  1. You Make the Call

Which of the two did the will of his father?

Jeffrey Crabtree: The power of choice is one of the presuppositions that made this parable work. Both sons made a real choice. The father did not choose for them. By His application, Jesus showed that individual choices determine entrance into the kingdom.

  1. No Argument Here

They said, ‘The latter.’”

Stu Weber: Actions are more significant than words. This was so obvious that even Jesus’ opponents answered correctly. It was the first son—the one who initially said no but who ultimately obeyed—who did the will of the father.

B.  (:31b-32) Shocking Application to the Jewish Religious Leaders

  1. (:31b) Worse Off than Tax-gatherers and Harlots

Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you

that the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into the kingdom of God before you.’

  1. (:32) Confirmed Rejectors of the Way of Righteousness Preached by John the Baptist

a.  First Indictment

1)  You Failed to Believe

For John came to you in the way of righteousness

and you did not believe him;

John Schultz: Jesus actually puts the priests and elder in the same category with the prostitutes and tax collectors. The difference is that the latter refused initially, but ended up repenting. The former kept on refusing. Jesus tried to make these pious people jealous by putting the prostitutes and tax collector before them as an example. Jesus also emphasized that there could be no doubt about the heavenly origin of John’s baptism. He did not defend His cleansing of the temple or apologize for it. He attacked His accusers. John’s baptism and the cleansing of the temple belong to the same category. There is also a relationship between the cleansing of the human heart through confession of sin, conversion and the cleansing of the temple. The temple was symbolic of God’s revelation of Himself on earth. As Jesus indicated earlier in connection with another cleansing of the temple, the actual revelation of God is in the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.2 We become members of that resurrected body through regeneration, of which the baptism of John was an indicator.

Ray Fowler: Jesus says, “John came to show you the way of righteousness.” What was the way of righteousness John came to show? John showed the way of righteousness was repentance and faith in Jesus. We read in Matthew 3: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” (Matthew 3:1-2)

So, John preached a message of repentance, and then he also pointed the people to Jesus. We read in John 1:29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29)

John showed the way of righteousness was repentance and faith in Jesus rather than outward religious show. But the religious leaders did not believe him. In fact, even when they saw the tax collectors and prostitutes repenting and believing, they still did not repent and believe in Jesus themselves. This made them even more guilty than before.

They chose outward religious show over heartfelt repentance and faith in Jesus. And so, they were like the second son who said he would obey his father, but then did not do what his father told him. Jesus asked them, “What do you think? Which son did what his father wanted?” They already answered, “The first son.” Earlier they had tried to trap Jesus and failed. Now Jesus has trapped them, and they stand condemned by their own words.

2)  Tax-gatherers and Harlots Did Believe

but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him;

Donald Hagner: Jesus now provides the logic underlying his explanation of the parable. God had provided an invitation to the Jewish leaders in the preaching of John the Baptist (in mind from the preceding pericope), which they had rejected. John had come ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, “in the way of righteousness.” Probably this is to be understood as a reference to the process of the accomplishment of salvation in history through God’s sending of John as the forerunner of Jesus (the phrase occurs also in Prov 8:20; 12:28; 21:21[LXX]; 2 Peter 2:21, but in these instances the emphasis is clearly on ethical righteousness). John came preaching the imminence of the kingdom of God (cf. 3:2; 11:11–12). Yet the Jewish leaders “did not believe him” (οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ; cf. v. 25). The tax collectors and harlots, on the other hand, responded to John’s message (for the response of the former, cf. Luke 3:12; 7:29). Jesus further contrasts the Jewish leadership with the first, initially disobedient son by noting that unlike him they did not “change their mind afterwards” (οὐδὲ μετεμελήθητε υστερον; cf. the same language in v. 29) and respond appropriately by believing him. The words τοῦ πιστεῦσαι αὐτῷ, “and believe him,” ordinarily expressing purpose, here are epexegetical, providing the content of the preceding verb (see MHT 1.216–17). Their culpability is stressed by the participle ἰδόντες, which may be taken as concessive, hence “although seeing.” The object of the participle remains unexpressed, although presumably intended is the witnessing of the response of the unrighteous to the ministry of the Baptist. The Jewish authorities thus have no excuse. The contrast noted here between the receptivity of sinners and the hardheadedness of the Jewish religious leadership in relation to the message of Jesus is a common motif in the Gospel tradition (cf. 9:10–13; Luke 7:29–30, 35–50; 18:9–14; John 7:48). The connection between John the Baptist and Jesus is such that those who reject John also reject Jesus.

b.  Second Indictment = Persistence in Unbelief Despite Evidence of Transformed Lives

and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward

so as to believe him.

Stanley Saunders: [Jesus’] own application of the parable turns on two details:

  1. First, Jesus links the parable with the preceding discussion about John’s baptism (21:25–27). For him, doing the father’s will corresponds to believing John, who “came to you in the way of righteousness,” and bearing the fruit of repentance (21:32a; cf. 3:2, 8). By this definition of “doing” what the father asks, all would agree that the leaders have failed.
  2. The second important detail concerns the matter of repentance. Jesus says that while John’s proclamation prompted belief among the tax collectors and sinners, “you did not change your minds and believe him” (21:32). Here Jesus uses the same word for “change your mind” as he had for the first child’s turnabout after refusing to go (21:29). Because the tax collectors and sinners did change their minds (which Jesus here equates with repentance) and bore the fruit of righteousness (e.g., joining at table with Jesus and his disciples, cf. 9:10–11), they will go into God’s kingdom ahead of the leaders, who did not change their minds and go into the vineyard (Israel) to work (bear fruit) (21:31).

Leon Morris: People whom they despised, the tax collectors and the harlots, were more open to John’s message. They did believe him, which means that they responded to his call for repentance and amended their whole way of living and of approach to God.  Clearly the change was evident, for Jesus says, “you had seen this.” But even the evidence of what a true response to John’s preaching could do in people’s lives did not produce a change in the conventionally religious. They did not repent afterward, that is, after they had seen what repentance effected in the lives of those who responded to John; they did not believe John. Repentance and believing John are closely connected; had they produced the one they would have produced the other, but they produced neither.