The parable of the brothers

The Readings

Philippians 2.1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

‘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 go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.


Scripture Quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Sermon
by Joe, a Reader at St. Mary's

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tonight, our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew brings us the parable of the brothers. Just to remind you:
“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 go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

We KNOW that the answer to this question isn’t going to be what we expect; this seems to often be the case with Jesus, who seems to often speak in paradoxes, inverting social norms, and generally catching us off guard.

When we think of fathers and sons in parables, I guess the first thing that usually comes to mind is the parable of the Prodigal Son. Both that parable and tonight’s parable tend to cause us a few problems with interpretation and understanding today, especially if we see the stories through our 21st Century eyes. As with all the parables, to get even a feel for what Jesus was attempting to teach his disciples, we have to discard our usual ways of thinking and attempt to think like a 1st century citizen of the Roman Empire listening to an itinerant Jewish Rabbi.
Context is everything.

We need to look at tonight’s reading from the context of the society in which the story was being told, and the moment in Jesus’s ministry at which he is telling it.

Let’s start by looking at what’s happening in Jesus’s ministry at this point.

Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and has been hailed as the ‘Son of David’, the Messiah, by the crowds. A leader who will usher in God’s will to the world. He’s done some healing, he’s withered a fig tree, and he’s turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. In other words, it’s not surprising that the priests and elders come to see him and ask Him by whose authority he is doing these things. Jesus immediately turns the tables, and asks them whether the baptism of John the Baptist was of earthly or heavenly origin. This question was quite a beauty; were the priests to say ‘From Heaven’, then Jesus could quite rightly point out to them that in that case they should be following in His footsteps, with the consequent loss of their position in society. And were they to say ‘Of earthly origin’, and retain their power and influence in society, then they are denying John as a man of God and Jesus as Messiah.

They give what they hope is a face saving answer; they don’t know. What is equally interesting is how they come to this answer; they discuss it amongst themselves, and they don’t seem to pray to God for guidance. What matters to them is trying to avoid people thinking ill of them – either Jesus or the crowd.

And in doing so, they lose what spiritual authority and leadership they have. Jesus’s question is forcing the priests to question their understanding of how God is working in the world. Leaders need to do what is right – even if that means you upset the status quo, lose face or upset people.
We now come to the parable.

Let’s try and look at the story from the viewpoint of those hearing it. The chances are that the audience would be mainly men. First century Jerusalem is a very male-oriented society, and respect for one’s father is very important. The cultural context and sensitivities of the priests and elders would colour their thought processes on this. Some would have thought that the son who says ‘No’ but then does the work is a good son; others would think that to publicly defy his father – even if he then went to work – is beyond the pale, and worse than publicly obeying the father and then privately disobeying him.

The father gets the choice of being publicly honoured and privately shamed (the second son) or publicly shamed and privately honoured (the first son). Messy. Indeed, quite a few scholars have suggested that both sons are being pains in the bum here; both could do with some behavioural adjustment – and I suppose THAT wouldn’t reflect well on the father either!

Both sons are defying their father to some degree; in a similar way, different groups of people – the sinners, like prostitutes and tax-collectors – and the religious leaders – were making decisions as to whether John the Baptist was a servant of God or not.

So, the question in the parable now becomes what and who matters to us when we make choices, but there is also something in there about salvation through deeds and salvation through faith.

Now, I have to admit that when I first encountered this parable I would have answered like the priests – Number 1 Son is eventually doing the right thing by his father. Jesus rebukes them when they give this answer – he suggests that those sinners will see Heaven before the priests do! Now, we’re used to the paradoxical thinking that often emerges from the parables, but how does this work?

The first son – defiant to his father, eventually does the right thing after changing his mind. This is the situation of the priests; they publicly make the right noises about worshipping God, just as the son publicly says ‘Yes’ to his father. But when they have seen and heard John the Baptist, they have have denied his holiness – they’ve not done the work in God’s kingdom that would be expected of them. The son in the story, later in the day, changed his mind (sometimes translated as ‘having a change in heart – a much stronger meaning) and did the work requested. In a similar way, there may be a point at which the priests experience a change in heart - do the right thing, and come to see John as holy, and do God’s work ‘in the vineyard’. But until that point, they’re not following the will of God.

The second son says Yes to the father, but then doesn’t follow it up with action. This is the position of the sinners who behaved poorly before encountering John, but when they do encounter John they say ‘Yes’ to him as a righteous man of God. They have shown faith, and respect for God. That faith has granted them access to Heaven before those who expressed denial of God.

This is why Jesus says that the priests will not see Heaven before the sinners. The sinners have seen fit to come to God through John, and acknowledged him as being from God. They say Yes to God, through their faith in John the Baptist. They will be saved through their faith, irrespective of their actions before they came to God.

The priests, on the other hand, didn’t see John in this way, and didn’t acknowledge his position as being from God – even after they heard of his actions. They have said a public Yes to God, through their work and position, but have denied God through their attitude to John the Baptist.

All is not lost for them – they may still experience a change of heart and do God’s will by acknowledging the message of John the Baptist as coming from God; but until they do – until they have that change of heart – they are not seen as being as righteous as the sinners who followed John.

I once viewed this as a disturbing parable – confusing, paradoxical, upside down. Now I view it differently.
We simply need to say ‘Yes’ to God and let Him into our lives.

The act of saying ‘Yes’ is what matters.

And we get lots of opportunities to say yes to God, every day of our lives.


The Prayers
prepared by Catherine

Let us pray….

To the words:
Lord, in your mercy:

Would you respond
Hear our prayer.

Lord, in your mercy:
Hear our prayer.

We pray for the Church...

For the church throughout the world
and especially those churches in dangerous and challenging places.
For the church in Sheffield
For our diocese and deaneries
For Bishop Sophie, and Archdeacon Javaid, installed this week.
For all who have been ordained deacon and priest this week.
For our churches at local level – St John’s, St Mark’s and St Mary’s –
our congregations and communities,
and their businesses, schools and care homes.
May we all be of the same mind as Christ
And serve others with his same humility.

Lord, in your mercy:
Hear our prayer.

We pray for the World…
Exploited by a humanity grasping at equality with God.
For all countries as they grapple with the challenges of Covid-19
For places stricken by war, poverty and the effects of extreme weather or climate.
For those seeking refuge far from home
For those struggling to accommodate refugees
For greater compassion from those who could do more to help.
We pray for our own country, its regions and cities
For wise and compassionate decision making regarding the pandemic
And wise and compassionate responses.

Lord, in your mercy:
Hear our prayer.

We pray for those in need
For the sick and those recovering from illness or injury
for the frail, the scared,
the lonely, the homeless,
the estranged, the bereaved.

In silence we remember those known personally to us who are in particular need.

Lord, in your mercy:
Hear our prayer.

We remember those who have died
We pray for their families and friends
And for all who mourn.

In silence we name those loved ones known to us who we see no more
May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

Lord, in your mercy:
Hear our prayer.

Merciful Father
Accept these prayers,
For the sake of your son,
Our Saviour,
Jesus Christ.


Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included in these prayers is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000