The day after Jesus cleansed the temple, He was confronted by the leaders who questioned His authority to drive out the money changers and merchants. In response to their questioning His authority, Jesus asked them about the baptism of John, whether it was from heaven or from men. In asking this counter-question, Jesus was not evading their question. Rather, He was driving them into a theological corner. If they answered from heaven, He would say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if they answered, “from men,” they would face the hostility of the crowd who believed John was a prophet. So they replied, “We do not know” (vv. 23–27).
Having painted the chief priests and elders into a corner, Jesus did not drop the matter. Rather, by means of the parable of the two sons, He exposed their self-righteousness and consequent lack of repentance. The first son initially refused the father’s order to work in the vineyard, but he later repented and went. The second son said he would go but did not (vv. 28–30). The two sons represent, respectively, sinners who repent and self-righteous people who think they need no repentance.
Jesus could not have been more forceful or direct as He applied the parable to the rulers who stood before Him. He deliberately chose two classes of people who were the scum of society. The Jews considered the tax collectors both as traitors and extortionists. And, of course, the prostitutes would have been regarded with the same moral contempt with which they are viewed today. In the minds of the Jewish rulers there could have been no greater contrast than between themselves and the tax collectors and prostitutes. Yet Jesus boldly said to the religious rulers: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (v. 31).
To appreciate the radical and scandalous nature of what Jesus said, think of a modern day counterpart. Go first to a wealthy, prestigious church in your city where the pillars of the community sit every Sunday hearing message after message about moralism deliberately designed to make them feel good about their own outward morality. As a result, they are taught nothing about the nature of their sin and the repentance required of them by God. In fact, they do not see themselves as sinners at all. When they think of the word sinner they think only of others.
Now go to the maximum security unit of the state prison system and attend a chapel service where the clear message of the Gospel is preached. On the front row sit a murderer, a rapist, a child-abuser, and a man convicted of armed robbery. These men sit with tears in their eyes as they hear the message of the cross and realize their heinous sins have been forgiven. They believe the words of an old puritan writer who said, “In all the Scripture there is not one hard word against a poor sinner stripped of self-righteousness.”
The contrast between these two groups couldn’t be greater. From a human point of view the first group is made up of the respectable pillars of the community while the second group would be considered the outcasts of society. But from Jesus’ point of view there is an even greater contrast. The second group enter into the kingdom of God while the first group, if they continue in their way, ultimately plunge into everlasting darkness. That
is the radical message of the Gospel.
This raises a vital issue for us today: Which group are we in? Most of us would probably answer “neither.” We don’t want to be identified with the self-righteous rulers, but we’re not comfortable seeing ourselves in the company of extortionists and prostitutes — even if they are repentant. But Jesus does not give us that choice. Either we are like the self-righteous Jewish rulers who feel no need of repentance, or else we see ourselves as sinners — along with the murderers and rapists — in need of a Savior. As has been often said, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” In other words, every sinner who truly realizes the seriousness of their condition will see themselves as absolutely desperate for the Gospel.
The truth of this parable extends beyond the Gospel’s initial work of regeneration, repentance, and justification. We also must realize that we never get away from our desperate need for the cross because the truth is, we are all still practicing sinners every day in thought, word, and deed. Therefore, if we are honest with ourselves and God, our continued sense of sinfulness never ends, even to our very last breath. So the awareness that we stand in need of continual repentance throughout life likewise never ends in this life.
What’s more, we must go beyond repentance to a daily appropriation of the Gospel. It is one thing to feel godly sorrow for our sins; it is another to see Jesus as having borne that sin in His body on the cross and to experience afresh the joy of forgiveness and acceptance because of His all-sufficient, finished work. Only then will we benefit from the teaching of this parable.