In a passage like we have this Sunday we must remember that it is not our place to judge other people; that is for God. I start there because for many, historically, this passage has been use to signify who is in and who is out. At times with some crazy definitions and understandings. But this is one of those passages that is meant to hold a mirror up to the reader and ask what is more important, your words or your actions.
In the first half of the passage Jesus is being challenged by “the chief priests and the elders” about his authority. So Jesus brings up the question about John and his baptisms. John was a very well known person, seen by many as a prophet and others as an agitator. Regardless, he was doing his baptism in the name of God. So Jesus throws them a “trick” question: Was what John was doing of heaven or of human origin?
The chief priests and the elders were debating and fearful of the response they were to give. If they were to say that what John was doing was from heaven Jesus, would point out their unbelief and wreck their credibility with the people. If they were to say it was human, the crowd would lose respect for the men, since everyone else had already begun to regard John as a prophet, so to save face, they gave a very political answer of “We Don’t Know.”
So Jesus, always taking advantage of the teaching moment, tells the parable of the two sons. One who tells his father he will not work the land, but later, for whatever reason, chose to do as his father asked. And the other who says the right things, but never shows up to work the land. Jesus uses this to say to the chief priests and the elders that people can spend their lives saying the “right” things, but being committed to God is something more than what we say, it is what we do. This means that even those who are at the lowest rung of society have the capability of changing their ways and turning to God.
Interestingly, the focus is not on the group that changes. What this passage is attempting to do is to hold a mirror to the chief priests and the elders and say to them that they are far too worried about themselves and how they look to others than they are to God. This means that their faithfulness is based far more on their own desires of looking good than serving God. Like the son that says he will work the field and does not. He made his father happy, saying the right thing, but the only one he served was himself.
I said earlier that it is important not to see this passage as judgment. I say this because it really has nothing to do about others and has everything to do with how we chose to live our lives. The chief priests and the elders made a conscious choice to live in a pious way. They worked to be seen well and heard on their appearances, but it was mostly for status and themselves. As we know from this and other passages, what is most important is what we do, not what we say.
Moreover, another forgotten aspect is the fact that God allows change. This is important since what Jesus is doing with the chief priests and the elders is that he is trying to challenge them to accept him and accept God by showing them the fault in their own approach to faith. For us, when we read the passage, we should take that mirror and ask ourselves if our words are more to do with how people see us, or if our actions are about how we are connecting with God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen