For the next three weeks our tour through Matthew’s storehouse of things old and new (Mt. 13:52) pauses at three parables, often called “Matthew’s Debate With the Synagogue Across the Street.” They are told amid the mounting opposition to Jesus during his final days in Jerusalem, but are strongly influenced by the struggle for Jewish identity between the emerging Christian group and the nascent rabbinic movement after the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.).
Stories of two sons are a staple of Jewish tradition (e.g., Esau and Jacob) and of the teaching of Jesus (see Lk. 15:11-32). In Jesus’ story, a man orders one of his sons to work in the vineyard; he says “I will not,” but has a change of heart and goes to work. The other son immediately says yes but never ends up in the vineyard. The parable leaves us wondering what the father would do and what happens to the deceptive son. But Jesus interrupts with a question: “Which of the two did the father’s will?” His adversaries, the chief priests and elders, are trapped, as David had been by Nathan’s parable (2 Sam. 12:5). They must answer “the first.” Then Jesus hammers home the application, that while notorious sinners (originally naysayers to God’s commands) repented when they heard the teaching of John, the religious establishment did not, even when they saw the conversion of the tax collectors and prostitutes.
Matthew is not simply bashing Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time; he is warning his own community. One indication of this is the question, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The expression “will of the father” occurs elsewhere in Matthew, always in the context of Jesus’ instruction of disciples (6:10, 7:21, 12:50, 18:14); and Jesus’ own prayer is that he do the Father’s will (26:42). The parable contrasts a son who says, “Yes, sir” (Gk. kyrie) with the one who actually does the Father’s will. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, this attitude distinguishes between true and false disciples: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21). Jesus goes on to say that neither charismatic power nor correct theology is enough without bearing fruit or doing God’s will.
Matthew’s community is to imitate the “good son.” It too is composed of people who, like Peter, said no—perhaps by denying Christ at times of persecution—but who turned and were transformed by God’s grace. Matthew’s community is not the heir of powerful religious leaders who prided themselves on their honorific titles and stunning interpretations of Torah, but of tax collectors (parade members of occupations forbidden to observant Jews) and women so oppressed that they sell their very selves. It is people like these who say yes and become “doers” of God’s will.
The second reading provides the Christological foundation of such conversion. Jesus himself is the truly obedient son, who says yes to his Father in the most radical way. The initial verses of the hymn explode with verbs of “doing.” Jesus did not grasp at equality with God; he emptied himself; he took on the form of a slave; he came in human likeness; he was obedient to the point of enduring a criminal’s death. The verbs then shift. God is now the “doer,” exalting him and giving him a name above every name, the name of the vineyard owner in Matthew (kyrios=Lord). This is the attitude of Christ Jesus that true followers of Jesus are to adopt.
Matthew’s application of the parable to his community has special power today. Both perennial and recent problems summon the church to a depth of integrity that is expressed in deeds, not fine words. The church is also always a community of forgiven sinners, even as today “unforgivable sins” seem to mount. The recent charter of the U.S. bishops against sexual abuse, while filled with genuine concern for God’s little ones, was a necessary but long-delayed response to a pervasive scandal. It was quickly followed by a pogrom against priests, many aged and many no longer a threat to young people. How will this be reconciled with the picture of Jesus, the good son, who not only warned against scandalizing the little ones (Mt. 18:1-9), but was also called “a drunkard and glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt. 11:19)?