The parable of the two sons whom their father sent to work in the vineyard is not a well-known parable--or one about which we hear many sermons. What does it mean? And what does it tell us about life in the church? In this article, Del Campbell explores this parable for us.
In a 1964 issue of “Christianity Today,” Will D. Campbell wrote:
“Some state there is no such thing as Christian race relations. Indeed there is! And it might be that the racist will force us to see it anew. But it has to do with grace, not law, not order. And by this grace we are no longer Greek, African, Asian; we are, in the words of the Pentecost story, “all together, in one place [yes, integrated], hearing the wondrous works of God.” And all our resolutions, petitions, strategies, all our human engineering will fail if we miss that simple point. We are the tertium genus—the third race. The Christian message on race is that race is irrelevant. And remember, too, that a man had two sons. The Church, through her pronouncements, resolutions, and statements, has said: “I go, Lord.” But have we gone?
Well, all I have tried to say is that we have failed in our message on race insofar as we have failed in our message of redemption…. A great deal of our social action has the wrong subject and object. The suffering of the member of the minority does not stand between him and his God, though God is certainly concerned with his suffering. In any concern for social justice, the soul of the dispossessor must concern us as much as the suffering of the dispossessed. But our weakness is that we timidly proclaim the message of redemption and apologetically proclaim the judgment of God” (Christianity Today, Volume 8, “A Man Had Two Sons”).
Campbell certainly has an unusual take on Matt 21:28-32 (actually, he stopped at verse 31), but one that the circumstances at the time impressed upon him.
How would we view this parable today?
The story, as told by our Lord, is a straightforward story with a straightforward application: people who recognize their sinfulness are more likely to repent than those who see themselves as blameless, even though the Law condemns all under sin, and the Gospel is for all people, “because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Except the story isn’t quite that simple. For starters, this story is told to illustrate Jesus’ response to the chief priests’ interrogation regarding His authority to teach. He replies to their question with a question: “What was the source of John’s baptism?” Since they claimed ignorance, Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
More interestingly, there are actually three possible endings to this parable, according to textual scholars. There is enough uncertainty between the three main choices, based upon the textual evidence, that they cannot rule any of them out on textual grounds.
The traditional ending does make sense, in light of Jesus’ response. The point of the parables is that recognized sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented at John’s preaching, would listen to Jesus and enter the Kingdom, but the religious leaders rejected John’s preaching and sought to marginalize Jesus, would not. Their animosity to our Lord and to His Forerunner leave them blind to His ministry and deaf to His Word.
Hypocrisy is the art of pretending to be something that one is not, as expressed by saying one thing but doing another. In the writings of Plato and Aristophanes, the Greek word, “ὑποκριτής,” means “actor, one who plays a role on a stage.” By the time of the Biblical writers, it had become a negative word, with the meaning that we currently use. It is a violation of the 8th Commandment, in that we are bearing false witness against ourselves, convincing ourselves that we are justified and/or sanctified before God by our conduct, which would be laughable if the results weren’t so tragic and avoidable.
The Gospel is not given to confirm us in our goodness; it is proclaimed to rescue us from our enslavement to sin--an enslavement that is so deeply rooted that we think that we are free, even as the chains choke us. God loves us and has come in Christ to rescue us. He also desires to connect us to one another. Good relationships are built upon truth, not play-acting, even when we find ourselves in disagreement with one another. As Solomon wrote, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6).
A repentant heart is a good thing to have, while “pride goes before destruction.” Sadly, while the Jewish religious leaders could see the wrongdoing in hypothetical situations, their pride blocked them from seeing their own sin.
That’s why we need the Law to be proclaimed even after we are baptized, confirmed, active worshippers in a local church. We cannot rely upon our own ability to discern our hearts, our own ability to rightly divide the Word of Truth, or even our own ability to “test the spirit.”
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14)…. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (12:21).
When you love and encourage one another to live as befits the members of the Body of Christ and as helpers to one another, then you are walking in the Spirit, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. There will be occasions when we stumble, and when it happens, we need to hear that God “is a present help in trouble.” We can always do better, for the only perfect man is the Son of Man. But He is also our Great High Priest, who intercedes for us, and the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who has all authority to forgive, restore, and empower you to walk in the newness of life. Whether you said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, there is “room at the cross for you,” space at the altar for you, and a God whose heart is in your favor.