Make up your mind

– Third week of Advent –

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” [Matthew 21:28 – 31]

Today’s text seems very straightforward, particularly when read in the context of the patriarchal culture from which this story emerges. Sons were to do as their father instructed, and failing to do so brought shame on them and on their family. This was a universal norm, particularly in the Semitic cultures of the period.

However, unlike a related parable also involving a man with two sons (Luke 15 – the story of the prodigal son), it is not immediately clear who the two sons in Matthew’s parable represent. In the prodigal son story, the obvious interpretation is that the elder son represents the Jewish people – depicted as being faithful and not at all pleased with the father’s mercy towards the younger son (the non-Jewish peoples).

The same may be true here, with the second son being the personification of the Jewish people (here saying ‘yes’ to the father but then failing to live by promises made) and the first son representing the Gentiles (having said ‘no’ to the father, thinking better of it and eventually doing what had been asked). This interpretation reflects how the early Church grew to accept Gentiles into its community.

Yet that interpretation does not account for the context. Instead, it is more likely that Jesus has in mind two kinds of Jewish people: faithless leaders and faithful outcasts – the false and true Israel.

What do we take from all this? Firstly, here we are not discussing who is better, luckier or more blessed – Jews or Gentiles. Far from it. Instead, this parable is the call for us all to take stock of our frequent inconsistencies. It is so easy for each of us to form good intentions, or to be content with simply appearing to do (or say) the right thing.

On any given day each of us can be either son, even bouncing back and forward between the two. The question is – which son will you be next?

By Shane Dwyer

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