Thought for the day  
In today’s parable, the offence is to be found in the blindingly obvious answer to the question Jesus sets. The application is then very sharp: those who seemingly never have experienced sin and conversion (who are they?) are quick to judge others who come to God through failure and fracture. It is like the ninety-nine who have no need of conversion—we may doubt that they ever really existed! A certain complacency can mark any settled religious group and if we add to that self-righteousness, then the mix is explosive and we are far from the Gospel as preached by Jesus.

Blessed are they who know their need of God (Mt 5:3). May we recognise ourselves as part of the community of the needy and show the compassion of Jesus to all without distinction.

Matt 21:28    [Jesus said:] “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The boy answered, ‘I will not.’ But later he had a change of heart and went. 30 The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of you into the kingdom of God! 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe. Although you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.

Initial observations
Today we have the first of three parables of judgment. The other two are the parable of the tenants (27A) and the parable of the wedding feast (28A). Further on, there is a conclusion to this series in Matthew 24:1-2 (see below under NT foreground).

This particular parable is unique to Matthew. The text is strongly “redactional”, that is, from Matthew’s style. It is very hard to detect a source behind the parable. There is a slight tension between the parable and the application: the parable has mutually exclusive “destinies” for the two sons, while the application is—mercifully—relative: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. The risk for us today is to leave the teaching in the past (to do with “them”) and the challenge for us today is to apply the parable not to “others” but directly to ourselves. In the commentary below, because the parable is so evident, more space will be given to the contexts in the Hebrew Bible, the Paul and Matthew.

Kind of writing
The fifth great narrative of this Gospel tells of Jesus’ journey to (19:3-20:34) and entry into Jerusalem (21:1-24:2). As it stands, therefore, the parable must first of all be understood in the context of this part of the Gospel. The story unfolds over two days:

The Entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11)
Day 1 (21:12-22)
Entering the Temple (21:12-16)
Leaving the Temple (21:17-22)
Day 2 (21:23-23:39)
Entering the Temple (21:23-23:39)
Leaving the Temple (24:1-2)

Our parable and teaching take place on the second day, within the precincts of the Temple.
As regards the form, we have here a short parable (vv. 28-31a) and a sharp application (31b-32)

Old Testament background
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (Exodus 24:3–7)

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote. (Isaiah 29:13)

New Testament foreground
Context 1
In this case, there is a triple context. The first is the general context in Matthew, writing for a Jewish Christian community, which has in all likelihood just broken away from the mother religion.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. (Matthew 23:13)

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:9–11)

In this context, the parable is incipiently allegorical. The brother who initially said yes and then no stands for, in Matthew’s community, the Jewish people, originally faithful who did not accept John the Baptist or Jesus. The brother who initially said no and then yes stands for the Gentiles and all the excluded who, although not originally faithful, finally said yes to both John and Jesus.

Context 2
The second context is the immediately literary one. These three parables are preceded by a fractious dispute, which is really part of the whole pericope.

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. (Matthew 21:23–27)
This tone is maintained in the conclusion to the parables:
As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1–2)

Context 3
The teaching about the will of God is strongly attested in this Gospel.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)

Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)

St Paul
Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:25–29)

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” (Romans 9:6–9)

Brief commentary

Verse 28 The experienced reader realises immediately that a comparison between the two will be operative. Vineyard is not just a place of employment but a symbol for Israel and even for God’s love for Israel (see Isaiah 5).
Verse 29 No reasons are given for either choice; that is not the focus.
Verse 30 An identical story with the motives suppressed as before.
Verse 31 This is hardly rocket science, of course, but the goal is (a) to distinguish apparent and real obedience and (b) to get the rulers to condemn themselves (see above, Matthew 23:13).

Compare: You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15:7–9) See Isaiah 29:13 above. Jesus’ attack is ferocious, but any more harsh than many critiques in the Israelite prophets.

Verse 32 The example of John is drawn upon. In the immediate context, the leaders refused to say whether they thought he was from God or not. Yet, the evidence of repentance was surely warrant enough to recognise that John was a true prophet. It is not accidental that John anticipated in his ministry the very same outreach which marked that of Jesus.

Pointers for prayer
1. It is possible to be a dutiful and observant Christian, and yet feel there is something missing. It makes such a difference when your heart is in what you are doing—so much better than just going through the motions. Where do you experience that most in your life?
2. The desire of Jesus for us to grow in that kind of committed, enthusiastic involvement in life. What encourages you to grow in this way?
3. The elders probably thought well of themselves in contrast to the tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps you know some unconventional people, ones who appear to ignore the ‘right’ way of doing things, and yet they have taught you something about true goodness.

O God, you alone judge rightly and search the depths of the heart.

Make us swift to do your will and slow to judge our neighbour, that we may walk with those who follow the way of repentance and faith and so enter your heavenly kingdom.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.