"What do you think? A man had two sons...," said Jesus
went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ĎI go, sirí; but he did not go."
"What do you think? A man had two sons," said Jesus, and a story was begun.
The chief priests and the elders listened to him. Like those who listen to the story today, they considered Jesusí question: "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They answered without hesitation.
Their reluctance to answer Jesusí previous question had gone. "Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" Jesus had asked. They considered their answer carefully. They weighed their options. And they saw the inevitable consequence of their decision. They decided not to say. "We do not know," they told him. Understand it wasnít that they didnít know; they simply wouldnít tell him.
Their answer would implicate them.
So Jesus then told them the story of a man who had two sons. His story became a mirror. While on the one hand they were unwilling to voice their answer, on the other they gave quick assessment and their judgement reflected their position.
This was not an unfamiliar pattern.
Nathan, in an earlier day, engaged David in a similar manner: "There were once two men in the same city," he began, and another story unfolded.
David desired Bathsheba, and he decided to have her husband Uriah murdered. His attempt to conceal their adultery provided a dark page in the reign of this king of Israel. Prudently, Nathan decided to tell a story. Its effect brought unhesitating condemnation that might otherwise have remained silent in personal regal rage.
We might think that a story, well told, would be adequate in making an indictment.
And we might miss the point.
"A man had two sons," Jesus had begun, "he went to the first and said, ĎSon, go and work in the vineyard today.í He answered, ĎI will notí; but later he changed his mind and went." As for the other son, Jesus went on, "The father
Jesusí story presents more than our choice between the two sons. The story allows for each sonís choice within the unfolding of the tale. We learn that one son changes his mind. The son who said he wouldnít do his fatherís bidding changed his mind and did do what his father wanted.
The point isnít that he was better than his brother. The other brother didnít change his mind. The other brother hadnít decided not to do his fatherís bidding. The other brother just hadnít got around to it.
The story allows for growth and insight and a change of mind ... a change of heart.
A change of heart is difficult to allow in the other, especially the delinquent. Uncomfortable with it, we remember disappointment and hurt. By allowing the character of the delinquent son to change his mind, Jesus discloses hope and redemption: good news!
And the chief priests and elders... and John the Baptist? They are sons of Abraham and the challenge of Jesusí story is for them, and us, to be open to a change of mind and heart. Then we will better answer, "Which of the two did the will of his father?"
Copyright © 1999 James T. Irvine