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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis:
Two Sons: Yeses That Don't Mean a Darn Thing!

Pentecost 19A     Matthew 21:23-32    

Matthew 21:23-32
Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 240.

The parable for today about the Two Sons in the Vineyard needs to be seen in its context with the deepening conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus had finally arrived in Jerusalem and had cleansed the temple. Feelings were running hot between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day and were getting hotter and hotter by the moment. The parable for today cannot be fully understood unless a person grasps the intensity of heated and growing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

#271. 273. CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE     Matthew 21:10-17, Mark 11:15-15, Luke 19:45-46

We will examine Matthew’s sequence of events.

*Triumphant entry on a colt.

*Cleanses the temple.

*Curses the fig tree.

*The chief priests and scribes seek to destroy him.

*The fig tree is withered (symbolic of the Pharisees).

*Jesus teaches in the temple and challenges the Pharisees who argue among themselves.

*Jesus tells the parable of the two sons and this parable sharply challenges the Pharisees.

*Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants who killed the son of the owner (Pharisees).

*Jesus teaches “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you (Pharisees) and given to people who produce the fruits of it.” (the tax collectors and prostitutes)

*When the Pharisees heard his parables (two sons and wicked tenants), they tried to arrest him.

*Jesus tells the parable of the Marriage Feast where people had excuses not to come.

*The Pharisees sought to “entangle him” in a debate about paying taxes.

*The Sadducees sought to entangle him in a debate about the resurrection.

*A lawyer from the Pharisees tried to entangle him in a debate about the great commandment.

*The Pharisees sought to entangle him in a debate about the Messiah and his origins.

*Jesus teaches his disciples about the phoniness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23).

*Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem.

Today’s parable about the Two Sons needs to be understood against this deepening anger towards and crescendoing conflict with the Pharisees.

Below are two famous paintings of Jesus cleansing the temple.

The above link has a fascinating conversation about this painting.

BERNARDINO MEIYou can see the money changer on the upper left, still counting his money. As Jesus reacts with the whip, it appears that he is using the whip to scare people who are selling goods in order to move these people out of the temple.



-And he was teaching daily in the temple. We recall the diagram of the temple. We know that Jesus was teaching daily in the temple. In chapters 21-23 of Matthew, Jesus was repeatedly teaching in the temple on various occasions.

-The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him but they could not find anything they could do for all the people hung upon his words.  This is the same old story: the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day was out to get him. When the Gospel of John talks about “the Jews” betraying Jesus, it was really the Jewish leadership composed of the high priests, chief priests, scribes and other principle men of the people. We remember that there were seventy-one chief priests who composed the Sanhedrin (which was equivalent to the Jewish Supreme Court and Senate rolled into political body that ruled the land.) The high priest was the administrative leader of the Sanhedrin. We remember that the scribes were the copyists of the Old Testament.

#276. THE QUESTION ABOUT AUTHORITY     Matthew 21:20-22; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8

Read this story. It is simple and adds little to the conversation.

-They again came to Jerusalem.

-And as he was walking in the temple. We know where the temple was and what it looked like. This is the setting of many of Jesus’ teachings in this section.

-The chief priests and the scribes came to him and they said to him: These were two groups of people who really knew their Old Testament, who had their equivalent of a PH. D. in their knowledge of the details of the Old Testament.

-“By what authority are you doing these things or who gave you the authority to do them?” Here again, the Jewish leaders were trying to entrap Jesus.

-Jesus said to them. “I will ask you a question. Answer me and I will tell you by what authority that I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” Jesus persistently demonstrated that he was more intellectually clever than his adversaries.

-They argued with one another, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he will say, “Why then do you not believe him.” But shall we say, “From men?” Jesus ended up trapping them, again.

-They were afraid of the people for all held that John was a real prophet. John the Baptist was a real prophet.

-So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” Once again, Jesus trapped them. They had wanted to trap Jesus, but they ended up looking like fools in the eyes of the people.

-Jesus answered them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” 

#277. THE PARABLE OF THE TWO SONS     Matthew 21:23-32

It makes sense that Matthew inserts this parable here because of its association with John the Baptist and with a vineyard.

This parable consists of very strong words against the Jewish religious leadership.

It is helpful to insert the phase, “chief priests and elders” instead of the pronoun, “you.” Then the parable becomes more acidic and strident against these antagonists.

This is clearly a parable even if the word, “parable,” is not used.

As we read the following parable, we are reminded of Jesus’ teaching earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who do the will of my Father.” We remember Matthew 7:24, 26 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be a like wise man who built his house upon the rock.” “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.” We remember Matthew 5:19 20, “He who does and teaches these commandments shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

-What do you think? Circle the word, “you,” and write the phrase, “chief priests and scribes.” This parable is a strong statement against these leaders.

-He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went.30

-The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’

-Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Circle the word, “you,” twice in this sentence and write the phrase, “the chief priests and the scribes.” This is part of the perpetual icy confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees.

A reader thinks that you are going to hear the phrase, “tax collectors and sinners,” but instead we hear the phrase, “tax collectors and prostitutes.” The word, “prostitute,” is much stronger than the generic word, “sinner.”

-For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. Circle the word, “you,” four times in this sentence. Also circle the word, “your.” It is obvious that Jesus was confronting these religious leaders.

Underline the phrase, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” and remember that these were the lowest people on the social rung. They were thought to be the bottom of the pile, the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low.

“Repentance” means “changing your mind which leads to a change in behavior.” Jesus also stated this theme at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, “Repent and believe the gospel.” Jesus first said, “Repent.” He said secondly, “Believe the gospel.” Nowadays, many Christians focus only on one half of Jesus’ teaching: “Believe the gospel.” They/we often ignore the first part of Jesus’ teaching. “Repent.”

At the heart of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees is that they didn’t see any need for repentance in their lives. They didn’t see any need for change. They were good enough, so they thought.

Painting and the Imagination: The Barren Fig Tree


Like the oldest son in the parable, he looked good and talked a good line but he did not produce. Similarly, Pharisees looked good and talked a good religious line, but they did not produce lives of righteousness. They were like barren fig trees: they looked good but there was no fruit on them.

YESES THAT DON’T MEAN A DARN THING!    Pentecost 19A     Matthew 21:23-32    

There was a tough minded football coach who had high expectations for his football players.  At the conclusion of one practice, he demanded that his players run three miles that night, do two hundred push ups, and study the play book for at least an hour.  And all the superstars and first team shouted out:  “You can count on us, coach. We’ll do that.”  That night, all the superstars of the first team gathered at the captain’s house to begin their exercises, but they happened to turn on the television set and the professional wrestling championships were on.  Within a short time, the superstars were slouched into the couch and the evening was slowly wasting away. 

At the conclusion of that same football practice earlier in the day, when the coach insisted on three miles of running, two hundred push ups and studying the plays for an hour, the third stringers whined out loud:  “What do you mean, coach?  We never get to play anyway.  Why should we do all that work?”  Later that night, when gathered over at the home of the water boy, the third string guys flicked on the television set, watched it for a second, and groaned when someone said:  “Let’s run those miles and do the pushups.” The third stringers had a change of heart and went and did all the work.

Which of the two groups did the will of the coach.  The answer is so obvious.

There was a piano teacher who was a very strict disciplinarian.  Her hair was pulled tightly against her head, with sharp features and sharp eyes and a no-nonsense attitude.  She said to her piano prodigy:  “Tonight, I want you to practice your fingering on this complicated motet for at least two hours, in preparation for your recital,” and the prodigy said, “Of course, no problem.” That night, just as the prodigy was to begin practicing, her best friend telephoned and before you knew it, two hours had passed and it was time for bed.  Meanwhile, the less gifted piano student groaned as her teacher insisted on two hours of practice that night, and she testily thought to herself:  “Why, I never play a recital; why should I practice that hard tonight.”  Her friend telephoned;  she hesitated; had a change of heart and told her friend that she had other things to do that night.  She pulled out her piano score and went to work on her fingering.  Now, which of the two students did the will of the piano teacher.  The answer is so obvious.

There was a father who had two sons.  He needed the lawn mown. The lawn was such a mess and friends were soon coming over for dinner.  The father asked his oldest son:  “Son, would you please mow the lawn for me?  We have friends coming over for dinner within the hour and a mown lawn would make the place look a lot better.”  The oldest son replied:  “Yah, Dad.  That won’t take me long.  And besides, you give me the keys to the car; you put gas in the car; and my threads are pretty nice.”  The oldest son went outside just as his friends pulled up to the front curb, shouting, “Hey, it’s time to party. Let’s hit the drive-in,” and off they all went in a hot-looking car. Meanwhile, the lawn was looking tacky, so the father said to the younger son.  “Son, would you please mow the lawn right now?  We have friends coming over for dinner.”  And that younger son gave such an agonized howl, a whine that screeched your ears,  “Ohhhhh, Dad.  Do I haaaaaave to?”  He went outside, just as his friends pulled up with their bicycles, shouting, “Hey, let’s go.  Girls down the street.”  The younger son got onto his bike, thought for a minute, had a change of heart, and said,  “I’ll catch up with you later,” and went and mowed the lawn.  Now, which of the two did the will of their father.  And the answer is so obvious.

We all have had these experiences, where the promises far exceeds the performance, where people say “yes” too easily and then don’t follow through. 

And isn’t it aggravating when people say, “Yes, yes, we’ll do it!” and then don’t follow through.  Like when the grandparents are coming over for dinner and the children are asked to pick up their rooms, and they nod a passive “yes,” and you, the parent, find them

lounging in front of the television.  Does this drive you up the wall?  Or am I the only such parent who has such feelings about his children.

Or let’s say you help with a volunteer organization such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, a soccer team, a church.  And let’s say that this soccer mom volunteers and says, “Yes, I will telephone all the parents and tell them about the change of time of the game.”  But she don’ do it, and nobody shows up because no one was called. Doesn’t that drive you up the wall?

Or let’s say that you are a computer programmer, and the programmer at the cubicle next to you says, “Yes, I can get that work done tonight,” and you come into the office in the morning and it isn’t done.  You can’t say anything, so you bite your lips and inside, shake your head in disgust and you do the work.  It’s aggravating when people make promises but don’t follow through on them.

Since we all have had similar reactions and feelings, it is easy for us to understand the parable of Jesus for today about the two sons.  The meaning is so obvious.  That is, some religious people make all kinds of grandiose promises to God but their performance doesn’t live up to their promises.  These Christians promise God,  “O yes, God, I will be your faithful disciple.  I will carry out the mission of the church.  I will do your work in the world.  Yep, count on me. I’ll get the job done for you, Lord.”  But they don’t do a darn thing.  And so God goes and finds some less churchy people who actually go and do what God wants done in this world.  

To understand this parable about the two sons, it helps to understand the context, the setting, which are the Bible verses before and after the story.  Like a diamond, its beauty can be enhanced by the right setting.  And so it is with the parables of Jesus; the setting enhances the meaning of the parables. 

This parable for today about the two sons is part of a larger section of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus and the Pharisees are in conflict.  In Matthew 21-24, Jesus and the Pharisees are in conflict with each other, and this parable is part of that conflict. In fact, Jesus had been in conflict with these Pharisees since the first days of his ministry three before. For three years, Jesus had a running conflict with these folks.

As Jesus was approaching the temple that first day of the week, our Monday morning, he noticed a beautiful, green, well shaped fig tree that was so lovely to behold; but upon closer inspection of this perfectly looking fig tree, it was obvious that there was no fruit.  And so it was with the religious lives of the Pharisees; they looked so religious; their religious lives looked so alive, so green, so well shaped, but upon closer inspection, they didn’t produce any fruit. Jesus cursed the fig tree and it withered and died.  It wasn’t any good anyhow. That is, it didn’t produce any fruit.  And so it was with the Pharisees; they looked spiritually alive but they were really dead. Their hearts were dead inside and so were their actions of compassion for people around them. Those acts of compassion were non-existent in their lives.

Later, Jesus compared the Pharisees to cups that look pretty and clean and shiny on the outside, but inside, the cups are dirty, moldy, and corroded.  And so it was with the hearts of the Pharisees:  they looked good on the outside, when people were watching, but inside, their hearts were polluted and corrupted and stained.

So Jesus and the Pharisees were interlocked in conflict that Monday morning in the temple. (Matthew 21:23 “And when he entered the temple.”)

Jesus said to the Pharisees:  There was a man who had two sons.  He said to the first son, “Will you go and work in the vineyard today?  The vineyard is a mess, and there is so much work to be done.  Picking up the rocks.  Planting.  Pruning. Picking grapes.  Producing wine.  Will you do the work in the vineyard today?” In other words, will you care for the sick and dying, the blind and the lame, the deaf and the dumb?  Will you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison?”  And the older son said, “Of course, you can count on me.”  And the older son went off to the vineyard...where he conducted a worship service, and then held a Bible study in the Old Testament,  and then enjoyed some wine and cheese and fellowship with his friends who also had come to the vineyard.

The vineyard was still a mess and there was much work to be done; and so the father approached people from the lower rungs of society to see if they would do the work.  He approached the tax collectors and tanners; the pimps and the prostitutes; the bookies, the bartenders, the belly dancers and asked them the questions:  “Will you do the work in my vineyard.  It’s a mess.   The world is a mess.  Would you care for the sick and dying, the blind and lame, the death and dumb?  Would you feed the hungry?  Clothe the naked?  Visit those in jail?”

And the tax collectors and prostitutes said:  “Are you crazy?  Who do you think we are?  Some goodie-two-shoes?  Get real.”  They started to walk away from the mess, but took a second look, had a change of heart, and went and did the work that needed to be done.

And Jesus looked the Pharisees in the eyes and asked the penetrating question:  “And which of the two sons was faithful to the father’s will?”  And the answer was so obvious.

Jesus continued:  “And so the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you Pharisees, even though you look so religious and smell so religious.”

Ouch. A zinger.

So what does this story have to do with you and me?

This parable is an invitation from Christ to go and do God’s work in the vineyard, in the messed up world in which we live.

And living like a Christian is work in this messed up world.  There are so many hurting people to care for, so many sick and dying, blind and lame, deaf and dumb, so many without food, clothing and in prison.  And it is work to live as a Christian in this kind of world. 

For example, the past week while on my late afternoon walk, I saw her wandering down the street, her mind almost totally gone; dementia, Alzheimer’s.  As she came closer, I recognized that she was/is a member of our church.  And there was Norma chasing after her.  Norma, a friend of twenty-five years, is now in charge of her aging life because she has no family or children or anyone else to care for her.  Norma was letting her run off her rage and anger, as she wandered down the street.  Norma was caring for her for two weeks in her own home as they waited for a bed to open up in an Alzheimer’s unit.  And let me tell you; it was work for Norma, caring for her demented friend.  It is work, working in the vineyard.

I called a friend this week who is very, very sick and in the hospital.  The voice in the hospital room answered, “So and so’s residence.”  Yes, the family had been living there at that downtown hospital for three weeks.  They were all tired, worn down by the onslaught of the disease.  It is work, personally caring for the sick and dying.

This past week I attended a board meeting of Lutheran World Relief and heard of the disaster care after the immensely devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan.  So many families without homes. So much to be done. I heard first hand accounts of the painful devastation as the result of wars in Kosovo and E. Timor. I heard stories of young girls and women who were raped by marauding soldiers in Kosovo, and were now pregnant by those soldiers. These young women had been cast out of their homes by their parents for religious reasons, that their daughters have been defiled. And who was to care for them?

The vineyard, the world, is always in a mess.  There are always earthquakes in the Turkeys and Taiwans of the world.  There are always wars in the Kosovos and the E. Timors of the world.  There are always divorces and families falling apart.  There are always poor families living down the street, with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. 

And what is the reaction of the church to this pain and devastation in the world around us, far and near?  Too often, we merely hold our worship services in the middle of the vineyard.  We have our Bible studies and small group studies in the middle of the wine estate.  We go out to St. Michelle’s (our neighboring vineyard northeast of Seattle) lovely vineyards for wine church sponsored tasting parties and fellowship events.

And so God, in the parable for today, in his disgust for our unwillingness to do the needed work in the vineyard says, “I will go and find somebody else who will do the work in this world of mine.”

In other words, this parable is an invitation for us not to be like the Pharisees. It is a challenge to go into God’s messed up world and do the necessary work.

In Jesus’ parables, the accent is always on the last figure, on the last personality of the story.  That is where the focus is.  For example, in my opening stories, the focus is on the third stringers who had a change of heart and went and ran three miles. The focus is on the second piano student, average in her ability, who had a change of heart and went and practiced her fingering for two hours. The focus is on the second, younger son, who saw that the lawn needed to be mown, had a change of heart, and went and did the work.  And the focus is on the second set of people in Jesus’ parable, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who actually had a change of heart and went and did the work.

You see, Jesus’ problem was with the Pharisees who didn’t think that they needed a change of heart; that they were just fine the way they were; that they were appropriately religious and they knew it.  And that’s the way it has always been: in the Old Testament, the time of Christ and throughout all of church history.  God’s people have consistently been blind to our own need to have a change of heart about doing God’s work in the messed up world around us.

And so in this parable for today, Jesus is inviting you and me to have a change of and I need a change of heart...about the messed up world around us.  You and I need a change of heart about the painful needs of hurting people around us...we need a change of heart about actually doing God’s work of love in a messed up world.  We all need this change of heart, a change inside.

One time, Jesus told a parable about two sons.  I am always amazed at the spiritual profundity of Jesus’ stories.  They are so brilliant, so perceptive, so right on.  Jesus’ stories seem to reveal the very mind and heart of God.  One time, he told the story about two sons. It was such simple story.  The father said to one son, “Would you go and work in my vineyard today?” and the son said, “Yes, yes” but didn’t do it.  So the father said to the second son, “Will you go and work in my vineyard today?” and the second son said “No, I’ve got other things going,”  but he had a change of heart and went and did what the father requested.  “Now, which of the two did the will of the father?”  And the answer was and still is so obvious.  Amen.

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