Benny Nalkara, CMI
The parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32) is a unique parable to the Gospel of Matthew. This parable has got different interpretations and all of them are relevant in one way or other. “Yes, but I won’t” and “No, OK then, I will” sons in the parable can be the representatives of the Jews and the Gentiles.They may be the righteous people whose piety becomes a routine and who live far away from God and the repentant sinners whose renewed mind pleases God. They may be the representatives of Pharisees and lawyers or the tax collectors and the prostitutes.
One of the classical ways of interpretation of the parable is to identify the first and second sons with the Israelites and the outcasts respectively. The parable has the purpose of emphasizing the guilt of the Jewish leaders and priests. The Jewish leaders originally said yes to the prophetic message from God delivered by John. They promised that they would obey God and then did not do it. On the other hand the sinners, tax collectors and the harlots are the ones who showed an initial carelessness to the law and then repented and fulfilled the will of God after listening to John the Baptist. The Parables of the Wicked Tenants (Mt 21:33-46) and the Marriage Feast (Mt 22:1-14) follow this parable focus on the same line of thought and in particular deal with the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus. They rejected the message of John the Baptist despite their claimed allegiance to the law.
The strong criticism against the hypocrite nature of the Scribes and Pharisees is also vivid in this parable. As the authoritative custodians and interpreters of the word of God, they were saying “yes” to God. But they misinterpreted the precepts and commandments. There was no correspondence between their words and deeds. They were often champions of unfulfilled promises and fine words. The courtesy in the words of the “Yes, but I won’t” son was the hallmark of these people. Against them only Jesus quoted Prophet Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mt 15:8). The parable highlights the Matthean theme that God requires deeds rather than empty words (Mt 7:21-23).
The parable of two sons is also an exposition of the shades of human traits of false promises and imperfect actions. It portrays that there are two classes of people in this world. One group is courtesy coated people with protestations of piety and sincerity but with unfulfilled promises. The other group is tough and sometimes rebellious ones whose practice is far better than their promises. The two sons can be the shadows of two natures in us – one nature that of instant willingness without follow-through and the other one marked by reluctant accountability. Very often we make readymade promises or quick decisions in our day today life. But when it comes to the question of practice, we miss the mark. The ritualistic Christian life may not help us to produce the expected result in life. We need desires, decisions and the dedication to become the children who glorify God. While our shallow promises and pledges betrays God, only the tears of repentance can bring forth fruits in the vineyard of God.
This parable highlights the attitude of a true disciple of Christ who should blend beautifully profession and practice in life. Neither of the sons in the parable is bringing full joy to the father or fully praised by Jesus. The first one who bluntly rejected the request of the father at once and then went on to fulfil the father’s will with a repented heart is pointed out as the better one in the story. He is considered better than the second one who with a sanctimonious piety “cheated” the father by giving him a false promise. But the really perfect disciple is the one in whom the profession and practice are integrated or where promises and performance match.
Finally, behind the parable of two sons we have a third son – a possibility in everyone. It is the possibility of the ideal son who accepts the father’s orders with obedience and with respect and who unquestionably and faithfully carries them out. In Jesus we have this Son par excellence. He always sought the will of the Father, looked to Him for the power to obey and faithfully accomplished His will. The parable of the two sons is a clarion call to become the ideal third son.