Jesus' Reasoning in Matthew 21:28-32

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This is my sixth post for Joe Carter's collaborative project Jesus the Logician (which would better be described as Jesus' Reasoning).

"What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him." (Matthew 21:28-32, ESV)

Jesus' argument here is an excellent example of an argument from analogy. Virtually all of his parables take that form, but this one is especially direct in making one point to one group of people on one particular issue. In context, this follows upon Jesus' immediately previous argument that I discussed here (primarily with respect to the Mark account of it). The chief priests, scribes, and elders had challenged Jesus' authority to be doing the things he was doing, and he had in turn challenged their own authority to judge him by showing that they were unwilling to answer a basic question that those in a position to be able to judge should have to answer. They wouldn't comment on where John the Baptist had gotten authority to do his ministry and thus shouldn't be able to judge Jesus either.

Jesus now moves on to argue that they have all the evidence to evaluate John's ministry and thus are incompetent as judges. He argues this through an analogy. It's fairly clear how to evaluate the two sons in this parable inititally. The one who agrees to work in the vineyard is giving the proper response and even calls his father a term of great respect, acknowledging his authority. The one who says he won't go is committing a grave disrespect to his father. Jesus then asks which did the will of his father, and they agree that the one who said he wouldn't go but did anyway had done his father's will, despite his earlier disrespect. The one who agreed to go had not done his father's will despite his inititial show of respect.

Jesus then brings the analogy home in a way that's quite damning to the particular chief priests, scribes, and elders who are challenging his authority. One of their main complaints against him has been that he eats and hangs out with tax collectors and prostitutes. I would assume that was part of the complaint against John as well. Jesus is saying that John's ministry fulfills the general principle behind Ezekiel 33, which he may have been consciously alluding to. The message God has given Ezekiel to deliver says basically what Jesus is saying here. The unrighteous who repent will not die for their unrighteousness, and the righteous who become unrepentantly unrighteous will die for theirs.

And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: 'Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?' Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?

"And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.

"Yet your people say, 'The way of the Lord is not just,' when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by them. Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways." (Ezekiel 33:10-20, ESV)

Then John and Jesus were simply fulfilling the function of the prophet to call people to this repentance:

"So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul." (Ezekiel 33:7-9, ESV)

Where did John receive his authority? Where did Jesus receive his? Only the godly seek to aid the ungodly in repentance. The commission to God's prophets in Ezekiel 33 is not to Satan's prophets. Jesus, in showing that the purpose of reconciliation to God and turning of sinners to righteousness simply fulfills the prophetic office, has demonstrated that he and John were both fulfilling the office of the prophet. He has thus answered their objection to his authority.

They have evidence aplenty to evaluate both John and Jesus. They simply refuse to consider it because of their prior commitment that those who spend time with sinners are not of God, even though Jesus has just explained to them, and gotten them to admit through the analogy, that the end result and desired aim of their time with sinners is repentance, something he by implication is saying that they have not done. After all, who in the analogy are those who say they will do their father's will but have not done so? Might it not be those who were declared watchment by their positions of authority but have not been willing to speak to the unrighteous whom Jesus has spent his time with? The analogy thus condemns them not just for their unwillingness to evaluate the evidence and recognize Jesus' authority. It condemns their prior actions with respect to those Jesus and John have ministered to.

2 Comments

Jesus is actually retelling ez. 18:25-28. which is one of the earliest references to life after death.

another point, the jews of Jesus' time would have understood this parable quite differently. there is a good argument that the second son was the one who did the fathers will (in temporal terms) because honor and reputation would have been more important to the father than the actual "doing" because of the small communities everyone knows everyones business and the fathers reputation would have been more important. given that today we see and understand that the 1st son in repenting and "doing" the work was then saved. this is also support for "works" as part of our salvation.

I hadn't connected it with Ezekiel 18, but that seems plausible.

Your second point seems to contradict Jesus' answer. He flat-out says that what's wrong with them is not changing their minds. He was telling them that if they changed their no answer and did his will they'd be fine, but they wouldn't do it. Furthermore, your interpretation is out of step with the sheep and the goats parable a few chapters later, where it's the doing that counts and not the saying. Those who call him Lord with their words but don't call him Lord with their lives are not really calling him Lord to begin with.

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