It is helpful to understand the context in which Jesus was speaking when he taught in parables.
In the case of our Gospel passage this week, Jesus had been preaching and teaching in the Temple when the chief priests and elders began questioning his authority. In response, Jesus tells them about two sons who are asked to work in their father’s vineyard.
For us to fully understand what he was saying, we need to realize that whenever a vineyard appears in the Old Testament, it is an image of Israel. So Jesus is really challenging his audience to look at how they, as the leaders, have been “tending” the people. Have they been saying one thing and doing another? Have they been like the second son, talking respectfully and lovingly to God, but then acting willfully and arrogantly? Or have they been like the first son, who rebels in words but then repents and does the father’s will? In this story, one question we can ask ourselves is this: Are our actions speaking louder than our words?
However, Jesus doesn’t just leave it at that. He always goes beyond convicting us of our faults to invite us to repentance and humility. The entire message of the Gospel is that the mercy of God is always available but God cannot forgive an unrepentant heart. When we are locked in willful pride, we are unable to repent. But when we recognize our sinfulness, then God can do great things for and through us. However, it’s not enough for us to just give lip service to repentance. We actually have to become repentant. We have to act, not just talk.
When the wicked turn away from their wickedness they have committed and do what is right, they shall surely live (Ezekiel 18:25-28).
The general theme of this chapter is personal responsibility. The more we learn about human psychology, the more we recognize that we’re dramatically influenced by the upbringing we received from our parents. We do suffer under the influences from the past, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t free to act in a manner different from that which our past might suggest. Also, in Israel, as in the Church today, there’s always a tension between the collective identity of the people and that of the individual as a particular representative of the aspirations of the people. The covenant is a collective institution between Israel and God, yet the prescriptions of the covenant are addressed to individuals. So when one defied God, flouting the covenant law, the corporate Israel was wounded in the person of the unfaithful one and suffered as a consequence of his unfaithfulness.
In short, the people of God live a corporate life of mystical communion, for good or ill. When the people are generally corrupt, even the best among us is likely to suffer. When the individual is vicious, the Body is wounded in some small part— but we’re all responsible for our own stand before our God nonetheless.
Consider others as better than yourselves; look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-11 [1-5]).
In this passage, St. Paul appeals for the unity in the Church. Since unity in the fullest sense could only be obtained by grace in Christ, Paul appeals to the example of the supernatural humility of Christ in coming among us as man. This is the model for all to follow in dealing with others in the community.
Not only is Christ’s humility a model for us to follow, but by his coming, he supplies the grace we need to actually follow him in humility. By taking the lowest possible place—that of a corpse—he is “highly exalted,” so that his very name evokes worship from the whole of creation. Of course his name, “Jesus,” means “God saves.” And so, he doesn’t merely show us, he saves us. The supernatural humility necessary for a real unity in “spirit and ideals” becomes a possibility for the Church. It’s that possibility that St. Paul is anxious to see become an actuality among the Philippians.
Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you (Matthew 21:28-32).
It’s possible to read the two sons in this parable as the Jewish and Gentile peoples respectively, but there’s a deeper point that transcends that historical one. In every age of the Church, there are those who say yes to God but then don’t follow him and those sinners who see their sin and repent of it. Jesus suggests to the officials that the conversion of the tax collectors and sinners at the preaching of John should’ve signaled his authenticity as a prophet. If the sinners are converting, take note, he tells us. That’s the sort of fruit one ought to see from God’s work.
Neither Jesus nor John is particularly harsh with sin. They correct it, certainly, but it’s only to unrepentance that they show scorn. Jesus can cleanse us from sin, but he doesn’t have any cure for unrepentance. The unrepentant invariably see themselves as first and the whole offer of salvation as unnecessary. They’ll be the last to enter the Kingdom, if indeed they’re able to enter at all, because the King himself is suspect to them. The King is a Savior and if you have no need of the Savior, you’ll not get the King or his Kingdom, either.
Please watch the short Opening the Word video presentation available free at FORMED.org
The presenter, Jim Beckman, explained a bit about the context in which Jesus told this parable. Who was Jesus talking to? What prompted his response?
What was Jesus inviting the priests and elders to do when he talked about the two sons?
Jim Beckman is a lecturer at the Augustine Institute, teaching the Discipleship and Leadership for the New Evangelization courses. He also works at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary for the Archdiocese of Denver, where he runs a Leadership Institute for the Lay Division of Formation. He is the author of God Help Me: How to Grow in Prayer and many others.