28 “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. 30 Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
Jesus spoke to religious leaders with a series of parables beginning with 12:28. He continued explaining the authenticity of His authority.
In the parable of the two sons, Jesus presented two contrasting responses to the gospel. The two sons represent two different classes of reaction to the gospel
“But what do you think?
Jesus invited religious leaders to actively engage with this parable.
A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’
The “vineyard” here refers to Israel in parabolic form.
He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went.
The first son initially outright rejected his father’s authority but later regretted that decision and changed his mind about working in the vineyard. He followed initial refusal with positive response.
Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go.
The father then approached a second son with the same request. His response was the exact opposite to the first son. He agreed to go to the vineyard but did not go. He followed initial agreement by no response.
Which of the two did the will of his father?”
Jesus asked the religious leaders to react to the first part of the parable about which son did the will of the father.
They said to Him, “The first.”
The religious leaders responded with the right answer—“the first” son who disagreed initially but eventually went to the vineyard. They judged themselves by this admission; they testified against themselves.
Jesus said to them, “Assuredly [important statement], I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.
Often Jesus made caustic statements to religious leaders because they held great responsibility in conveying truth to their followers. Jesus asserted that just because they were religious did not mean they would “enter the kingdom of God.” They knew the Word of God and gave assent to it, but they did not follow it. Sinful outcasts (tax collectors and harlots) had a greater chance of entering the kingdom than those religious leaders. These “dregs of society” were more like the first son who eventually went to do what had been asked.
For John came to you in the way of righteousness,
“Righteousness” here refers to repentance about the Messiah and His kingdom.
and you did not believe him;
Jesus now linked the religious leaders with the second son, who agreed to go but did not ultimately go to the vineyard. The religion of those opposing Jesus held skepticism about John, as well, being sent from God.
but tax collectors [extortionists] and harlots believed him;
John the Baptist introduced the Messiah to the religious leaders of Israel, but they did not believe him. The religious elite did not believe, yet outcasts did believe John. It changed their lives.
and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
The religious leaders were not like the first son, who initially rejected the father’s request but eventually went to the vineyard. They were like the second son, who said he would work in the vineyard but didn’t. They “saw” but did not believe; therefore, they were culpable. They had no excuse.
Profession without practice is phony.
It is one thing to say something, but it is another to do it. Words by themselves mean little. The doing in the above parable is about acceptance of the gospel by faith.
There are people who understand their desperate need for the grace of God and embrace it. These people have no illusions about themselves. There are others who put on a phony religious front.