The Parable of the Sons


Over 30 years ago Reader’s Digest had the story of an Admiral at sea surveying the convey for battleship’s. “One, two, three,” he says while looking through the binoculars. Where’s the fourth?” There’s silence on the bridge. Again the Admiral counts this time pointing, “1, 2, 3. Where in the blazes is that 4th battleship?” A sailor in the back of the bridge replies, “Sir, you’re standing on it.” We’ve all missed the forest for the trees. What about in this Parable of the Sons?

The first son shows our rebellion. The father comes up close to the first son and says tenderly: “Child” (YLT) or even “my boy” (NTE). The Greek here is not ‘son’ but ‘child’. True, it’s masculine, so that’s why they translate ‘son’, but teknon is softer, more affectionate. The Irish would say, “Lad.” So, we’re totally unprepared for the boy’s unprovoked, unqualified, unapologetic. “No!” True, the father isn’t asking. He commands both the going and the working, but that’s as it should be for a parent. You whine for a kid to do something and you’ve already lost. “My boy you must depart today and work in the vineyard,” the parent commands, and the boy answering said, “Not I wish.” This is ou that says, “No” once and for all. No going back. This is not may which says, “I could change my minds.”

This is open rebellion. These are the tax collectors and strumpets mentioned later. Gouging, overtaxing, and violence went hand and hand with tax collecting for Rome. And there’s no way you could be “street walker” and be anything but in open rebellion of the 6th Commandment. Yes, situations could’ve driven them to this. Yes, a man was probably behind the scenes enabling, encouraging them to sell their souls for some earthly benefit, but nevertheless their souls were sold. But falling away from the faith, doesn’t feel bad. It’s like hypothermia. In the last stages of freezing to death you feel warm, better, at peace. You don’t look demonized, demonic when you say, “No” to God, but you are.

Remember parables show you what really is going on. When you fail to fear, love, and trust in God above all things as you do in worry, lust, and self, you’re shouting, “No!” to God. When we seldom if ever use God’s name to pray, praise, and give thanks, that’s a hard No as well. When you stay away from preaching and the word, with your good reasons, when you don’t gladly hear and learn it, you don’t feel, seem ,or look to yourself to be impudent, rebellious, deserving of punishment. But you are the 3 year old standing before the parent stamping his foot saying, “No”. Only you’re doing it before God Almighty.

Aren’t you glad there’s a second son? The Greek describes the second lad as other not another. Heteros expresses a qualitative difference, an “other of a different sort.” In sci-fi or horror movies if something is ‘other’ watch out. The father comes up to the other and says the same thing. And how does he answer? Just like Eddie Haskel would. Politely, devotedly. “I Lord.” No debate. No qualifications. No backtalk. Just a straightforward two word answer, “I Lord.” I think of the Navy’s, “Aye, aye, Captain.” Sailors only respond this way to lawful orders not to yes or no questions. To those, yes or no replies are fine. The father walks away from this exchange pleased. For once there’s no backtalk, no attitude, no rolling of the eyes. Sure it doesn’t feel like Eddie Haskel’s, “Yes Mrs. Cleaver. No Mrs. Cleaver. How nice you look today Mrs. Cleaver.” But it is.

Who is this in our text? I should’ve made that clear in the opening. The people Jesus addresses the question, “What to you think?” to are the chief priests and elders of the OT Church. This is in the temple that last week of Jesus’ life. They had come up to Jesus and demanded to know the source of His authority to say such radical things as the Gospel did. Jesus only agreed to answer if they would first answer whether the Baptism of John was divine or manmade. They wouldn’t answer because if they said divine Jesus would reply, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” and if they said manmade, they feared the crowds who held John to be a prophet. These are the Other. They paid the taxes, the tithe, kept the Sabbath, journeyed to Jerusalem for the appointed feasts. They said, ‘Yes’ to the dietary Laws; to the civil laws; to the moral laws. They weren’t open sinners like the tax collectors and harlots. They were respected leaders of the OT church. 

It’s us too, right? Since, the 90’s, I think people have been trained not to say, “no”. Make all your no’s yes’s. Say ‘yes’ to everything is a cult-like mantra. The problem is that the Other does say yes and yet did not go. This ‘no’ is the same hard, definitive “No” of the first boy. It’s no backing down. It “all gas no breaks.” He isn’t going now or ever. Isn’t this you? When you joined this church you said, ‘yes’ to all the Commandments. When you Call a pastor you bind him to preach and teach and yourself to be there when he preaches and teaches at your mutually agreed times. You say, “Yes” to Divine Service and Bible Class. If you have no intention of going to either, your call says yes but it’s really a hard no!

The question Jesus asks of the OT leaders is easy. Which child did the will of his parent the first or the Other? Surprisingly it’s the first who said no to his Father’s face, but later repents and goes. But this isn’t about working in a vineyard. This is about going to heaven. Lk. 7:29-32 gives a short summary of the issue: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and scribes rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they hadn’t been baptized by John.” Catch that? God’s eternal purpose is to save both boys. Even the other. Especially the other. Even you. Especially you. How can that happen?

Okay, okay. I get it. There is salvation in being that first son. I repent, I repent, I repent. Not so fast. Augustine said, “’True repentance is never too late, but a late one is seldom a true one’” (Walther, Pastoral Theology, 223). If that don’t make you gulp, nothing will. That shows you there is no salvation in either of these sons. Thankfully, there’s a Third Son. The One who’s even nearer to us than the battleship was to the admiral standing on it. The Third Son, Jesus, always said yes. “Yes, I will go into the womb of a Virgin. I who am Very God of Very God. Ruler from eternity of all things, will take on flesh and blood as an ordinary mortal. Yes, I will do Your bidding Father even when it costs Me body, soul, and all. Even when I wish there was a another way to redeem Your fallen children than the way of the cross, damnation, and death. Yes, I will go even that way.” He said, yes unlike the first boy and did go into Father’s vineyard unlike the second. 

The Third Son not only did perfectly what neither son could or would do, He bore the sins of the other two. He bore the sins of tax collectors and prostitutes which were obvious to everyone. And Jesus bore the sins of the OT church leaders that aren’t so obvious. He went to the cross with all the shame, pain, guilt, and fear that sins against 5th, 6th, and 7th Commandments deserve. And Jesus went to the cross bearing those secret sins of the first 3 Commandments that aren’t so obvious, but are more damnable and deadly.  But there is no hope in your determining to be different starting now. Or trying to put right all that you’ve wronged. You can’t. You won’t. You will only accumulate more guilt, more sins, more wrongs that you will have to answer for come judgment. Jesus says, “Here let me take that load off of you. See it on My back all the way to the cross. If I carried it there and paid for it there, how can any of it be on you?”

The parable turns on this Greek word metamelomai. It appears twice once in regard to the first boy and once in regard to the OT church leaders. It’s rendered ‘repent’ both times. Metamelomai can mean metanoe?, repent in all it’s fullness: Sorrow for sin, belief in the Gospel, and seeking to amend. But metamelomai can also refer to a single act. It’s an aftercare, an after thought about one particular act. Metanoe?, on the other hand, throws your soul, your life, your all on the pile of sin and sinfulness asking mercy for it all. Make no mistakes the goal here is metanoia. But that takes a miracle. An early 20th century Lutheran theologian observed that people will grasp at any teaching no matter how contrary to reason as long as it renders repentance unnecessary. They will purchase painkillers for a gnawing conscience at any price even that of reason and common sense rather than repent (Graebner, T, Moving Frontiers, 382-3).

But Jesus doesn’t go all the way to metanoia here. He says when the church people, when you and I, see the great change worked in hardened sinners we didn’t even have a second-thought, a metamelomai. We didn’t even do like the man who bothered to send the IRS a money order for $150 anonymously. He said he had cheated on his income tax and couldn’t stop feeling guilty. Now he had repented, and added, “If I still can’t sleep at night, I’ll send you the rest of the money.’” That’s wrong. That’s not true repentance, but it is metamelomai. But our characters in the parable didn’t even have this. When they saw how the Gospel could break the power of canceled sin, they didn’t even have a second look! Scripture says Judas has this upon seeing what the condemned Jesus went through (Mt. 27:3). Three things have amazed me the most in pastoring: the power of the Gospel to redeem, rescue and change people, the hardness of the opposition to it, and how the Third Son nevertheless never gives up or even grows weary of seeking the hardest of hardened sinners.

Back to the admiral looking for the 4th battleship that he was standing on. We’re looking for the way of righteousness, the highway to heaven, redemption from sin, death, and the devil. It’s not in the first boy or the Other in what they said or did. It’s in what the Third Son did for you when He came the first time and does for you every time He comes for you in Word and Sacraments. So where’s the way of righteousness and redemption broken sinners need? You’re standing in it right now. Amen 

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Pentecost XIX (20231008); Matthew 21:28-32