Parable of the Sons
“There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?’ ‘The first,’ they answered” (Matthew 21:28–31, NIV).
How many times have you said you’d do something and then didn’t follow through with it? Maybe you planned to get up early but slept in. Perhaps you had a reading goal for the year and fell terribly short. And I’m sure at some point, you’ve scheduled a workout that just didn’t happen.
Yeah, I’m guilty of this, too!
In Matthew 21:28–32, we find the parable of the two sons who seem to have a similar problem with commitment. These two sons have a father who owns a vineyard. When asked to work in the vineyard, the first son originally says no. Some translations say he later “regretted it”, and some say he “repented and went”.
What caused this regret? Was it guilt? Was it that he had nothing better to do? Perhaps it was a sudden burst of motivation. Maybe a podcast or self-help book really inspired him to get cracking.
And then there’s the second son. He originally said yes to working, but we don’t know why he changed his mind and didn’t go. Was it busyness? anxiety? laziness? Was he too scared to say ”No”? Maybe his no-show was the result of people-pleasing and a lack of clear communication. Who knows? All those examples are pure speculation, but I dare say they’re reasons that you and I haven’t fulfilled our promises in the past.
My first reaction to rereading this parable was, ‘Wow! A whole fable on indecisiveness? Could anything be more relevant to me as a human?’ Like me, you may find yourself having great intentions but falling short; or you’ve ended up doing even more than you planned or committed to do. I’m sure, in some ways, we’ve all been both sons at different times. However, unpacking the story more closely reveals that it’s not a lesson on indecisiveness or a ploy for productivity. Well, then, what is it really about?
First, I want to refer to an interesting book I recently read. It’s called Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg; it explains how to realistically design desired behavior into your life. Fogg’s theory is that the best way to reach our long-term goals is to break them down into the tiniest of habits—and he means the tiniest. For example, your goal may be to run a half marathon. You know that will take a lot of effort. Some days, you’ll feel motivated to run, and some days, you just won’t be bothered at all. In this case, instead of focusing on the looming 21 kilometers ahead of you, Fogg would suggest breaking your running goal into the smallest possible component, like just putting on your running shoes. If you make this your daily goal, it’s something you should be able to do on your busiest, most exhausting day.
Now, some days you’ll far exceed this step and get in quite a few kilometers, but if simply putting your shoes on is the primary goal, you give yourself permission to feel accomplished every single day. Nevertheless, underlying this theory, Fogg says there is one key principle fundamental in assisting change: “We change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”
It is this feeling that makes it easier to build momentum, so rather than getting buried in or overwhelmed by a big challenge, you leverage the good feeling of many small successes to eventually achieve a large one. While I like the sentiment, I think understanding the parable of the sons could help us rework it through a Christian lens.
After describing the actions of both sons, Jesus asked which one ended up doing the will of his father (Matthew 21:31). It was the first—the son who originally said no but then went and worked. It was the son who changed.
The reality is if we claim to be a son (or daughter) of the Father, excuses don’t really factor into not doing His will. No matter how good his intentions were, the second son didn’t do the will of the Father. He said yes but didn’t follow through.
Perhaps we could rewrite Fogg’s notion of “changing best by feeling good” to “we change best because of our relationship with the Father”, but hang on. We shouldn’t be defined by what we do, should we? After all, having an inherent value from being designed in God’s image is one of the most beautiful tenets of the Christian experience. We are infinitely loved, no matter how good or bad we are, right? Yes, but some might use this reasoning to factor change out of the equation, and the parable of the sons keeps us balanced in our thinking.
That’s because in reading it, we realize that being “the son” has nothing to do with actually completing the Father’s will. Growing up in the Father’s house, knowing His rules, and being a part of His community don’t actually mean anything unless we say yes and follow through with it, even if we originally said we wouldn’t. Just like the first son who said no and then ended up working, it was his change in behavior that qualified him in doing the father’s will.
This reveals that the story is not at all about indecisiveness versus productivity; and it actually isn’t just about being a child of God. It’s much more than that. It reinforces the importance of actively living out our relationship with the Father.
We know this because Jesus extended the parable to those outside the father-son example in this story. Matthew 21:31 continues with, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (NKJV). Jesus made a bold point here. After all, the reason He told this parable is that the chief priests—the religious leaders—are trying to undermine His authority. They were familiar with the Scriptures and followed the religious rules, but they were extremely self-righteous. To be told that the people they most judged would enter the kingdom of God before they would would have been radical to hear and uncomfortable to internalize. Yet again, Jesus was calling them out on their shallow, bigoted approach to religion.
Personally, I find this confronting yet really beautiful because what we choose today, not what we’ve chosen in the past, is what allows us to live a beautiful life as His child. The Father didn’t hold it against the first son for saying no in the first place. He also didn’t give a free pass to the second son for having said yes originally. We all have an equal opportunity to be a son or daughter of the Father, and we are all called to then do His will.
Therefore, despite my familiarity with the Bible, no matter my involvement in church activities, regardless of how long I’ve been a Christian, this has challenged me to rethink how genuine I really am in my relationship with Jesus. Galatians 3:26 says it simply: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” By grace, through faith, we are able to change for the best because of our relationship with the Father.
Even if we’ve said no to God a thousand times, it is the “yes” at the end that matters. And thank God He always says yes to us.