As Christ instructed his disciples by parables, which made the instructions the more easy, so sometimes he convinced his adversaries by parables, which bring reproofs more close, and make men, or ever they are aware, to reprove themselves. Thus Nathan convinced David by a parable (2 Sam. 22:1), and the woman of Tekoa surprised him in like manner, 2 Sam. 14:2: Reproving parables are appeals to the offenders themselves, and judge them out of their own mouths. This Christ designs here, as appears by the first words (Matt. 21:28), But what think you?
In these verses we have the parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, the scope of which is to show that they who knew not John’s baptism to be of God, were shamed even by the publicans and harlots, who knew it, and owned it. Here is,
I. The parable itself, which represents two sorts of persons; some that prove better than they promise, represented by the first of those sons; others that promise better than they prove represented by the second.
1. They had both one and the same father, which signifies that God is a common Father to all mankind. There are favours which all alike receive from him, and obligations which all alike lie under to him; Have we not all one Father? Yes, and yet there is a vast difference between men’s characters.
2. They had both the same command given them; Son, go work to-day in my vineyard. Parents should not breed up their children in idleness; nothing is more pleasing, and yet nothing more pernicious, to youth than that. Lam. 3:27. God sets his children to work, though they are all heirs. This command is given to every one of us. Note, (1.) The work of religion, which we are called to engage in, is vineyard work, creditable, profitable, and pleasant. By the sin of Adam we were turned out to work upon the common, and to eat the herb of the field; but by the grace of our Lord Jesus we are called to work again in the vineyard. (2.) The gospel call to work in the vineyard, requires present obedience; Son, go work to-day, while it is called to-day, because the night comes when no man can work. We were not sent into the world to be idle, nor had we daylight given us to play by; and therefore, if ever we mean to do any thing for God and our souls, why not now? Why not to-day? (3.) The exhortation to go work to-day in the vineyard, speaketh unto us as unto children (Heb. 12:5); Son, go work. It is the command of a Father, which carries with it both authority and affection, a Father that pities his children, and considers their frame, and will not overtask them (Ps. 103:13, 14), a Father that is very tender of his Son that serves him, Mal. 3:17. If we work in our Father’s vineyard, we work for ourselves.
3. Their conduct was very different.
(1.) One of the sons did better than he said, proved better than he promised. His answer was bad, but his actions were good.
[1.] Here is the untoward answer that he gave to his father; he said, flat and plain I will not. See to what a degree of impudence the corrupt nature of man rises, to say, I will not, to the command of a Father; such a command of such a Father; they are impudent children, and stiff-hearted. Those that will not bend, surely they cannot blush; if they had any degree of modesty left them, they could not say, We will not. Jer. 2:25. Excuses are bad, but downright denials are worse; yet such peremptory refusals do the calls of the gospel often meet with. First, Some love their ease, and will not work; they would live in the world as leviathan in the waters, to play therein (Ps. 104:26); they do not love working. Secondly, Their hearts are so much upon their own fields, that they are not for working in God’s vineyard. They love the business of the world better than the business of their religion. Thus some by the delights of sense, and others by the employments of the world, are kept from doing that great work which they were sent into the world about, and so stand all the day idle.
[2.] Here is the happy change of his mind, and of his way, upon second thought; Afterward he repented, and went. Note, There are many who in the beginning are wicked and wilful, and very unpromising, who afterward repent and mend, and come to something. Some that God hath chosen, are suffered for a great while to run to a great excess of riot; Such were some of you, 1 Cor. 6:11. These are set forth for patterns of long-suffering, 1 Tim. 1:16. Afterward he repented. Repentance is metanoia—an after-wit: and metameleia—an after-care. Better late than never. Observe, When he repented he went; that was the fruit meet for repentance. The only evidence of our repentance for our former resistance, is, immediately to comply, and set to work; and then what is past, shall be pardoned, and all shall be well. See what a kind Father God is; he resents not the affront of our refusals, as justly he might. He that told his father to his face, that he would not do as he bid him, deserved to be turned out of doors, and disinherited; but our God waits to be gracious, and, not withstanding our former follies, if we repent and mend, will favourably accept of us; blessed be God, we are under a covenant that leaves room for such a repentance.
(2.) The other son said better than he did, promised better than he proved; his answer was good but his actions bad. To him the father said likewise, Matt. 21:30. The gospel call, though very different, is, in effect, the same to all, and is carried on with an even tenour. We have all the same commands, engagements, encouragements, though to some they are a savour of life unto life, to others of death unto death. Observe,
[1.] How fairly this other son promised; He said, I go, sir. He gives his father a title of respect, sir. Note, It becomes children to speak respectfully to their parents. It is one branch of that honour which the fifth commandment requires. He professes a ready obedience, I go; not, “I will go by and by,” but, “Ready, sir, you may depend upon it, I go just now.” This answer we should give from the heart heartily to all the calls and commands of the word of God. See Jer. 3:22; Ps. 27:8.
[2.] How he failed in the performance; He went not. Note, There are many that give good words, and make fair promises, in religion, and those from some good motions for the present, that rest there, and go no further, and so come to nothing. Saying and doing are two things; and many there are that say, and do not; it is particularly charged upon the Pharisees, Matt. 23:3. Many with their mouth show much love, but their heart goes another way. They had a good mind to be religious, but they met with something to be done, that was too hard, or something to be parted with, that was too dear, and so their purposes are to no purpose. Buds and blossoms are not fruit.
II. A general appeal upon the parable; Whether of them twain did the will of his father? Matt. 21:31. They both had their faults, one was rude and the other was false, such variety of exercises parents sometimes have in the different humours of their children, and they have need of a great deal of wisdom and grace to know what is the best way of managing them. But the question is, Which was the better of the two, and the less faulty? And it was soon resolved; the first, because his actions were better than his words, and his latter end than his beginning. This they had learned from the common sense of mankind, who would much rather deal with one that will be better than his word, than with one that will be false to his word. And, in the intention of it, they had learned from the account God gives of the rule of his judgment (Ezek. 18:21-24), that if the sinner turn from his wickedness, he shall be pardoned; andif the righteous man turn from his righteousness, he shall be rejected. The tenour of the whole scripture gives us to understand that those are accepted as doing their Father’s will, who, wherein they have missed it, are sorry for it, and do better.
III. A particular application of it to the matter in hand, Matt. 21:31, 32. The primary scope of the parable is, to show how the publicans and harlots, who never talked of the Messiah and his kingdom, yet entertained the doctrine, and submitted to the discipline, of John the Baptist, his forerunner, when the priests and elders, who were big with expectations of the Messiah, and seemed very ready to go into his measures, slighted John the Baptist, and ran counter to the designs of his mission. But it has a further reach; the Gentiles were sometimes disobedient, had been long so, children of disobedience, like the elder son (Titus 3:3, 4); yet, when the gospel was preached to them, they became obedient to the faith; whereas the Jews who said, I go, sir, promised fair (Exod. 24:7; Josh. 24:24); yet went not; they did but flatter God with their mouth. Ps. 78:36.
In Christ’s application of this parable, observe.
1. How he proves that John’s baptism was from heaven, and not of men. “If you cannot tell,” saith Christ, “you might tell,”
(1.) By the scope of his ministry; John came unto you in the way of righteousness. Would you know whether John had his commission from heaven, remember the rule of trial, By their fruits ye shall know them; the fruits of their doctrines, the fruits of their doings. Observe but their way, and you may trace out both their rise and their tendency. Now it was evident that John came in the way of righteousness. In his ministry, he taught people to repent, and to work the works of righteousness. In his conversation, he was a great example of strictness, and seriousness, and contempt of the world, denying himself, and doing good to every body else. Christ therefore submitted to the baptism of John, because it became him to fulfil all righteousness. Now, if John thus came in the way of righteousness, could they be ignorant that his baptism was from heaven, or make any doubt of it?
(2.) By the success of his ministry; The publicans and the harlots believed him; he did abundance of good among the worst sort of people. St. Paul proves his apostleship by the seals of his ministry, 1 Cor. 9:2. If God had not sent John the Baptist, he would not have crowned his labours with such wonderful success, nor have made him so instrumental as he was for the conversion f souls. If publicans and harlots believe his report, surely the arm of the Lord is with him. The people’s profiting is the minister’s best testimonial.
2. How he reproves them for their contempt of John’s baptism, which yet, for fear of the people, they were not willing to own. To shame them for it, he sets before them the faith, repentance, and obedience, of the publicans and harlots, which aggravated their unbelief and impenitence. As he shows, Matt. 11:21; that the less likely would have repented, so here that the less likely did repent.
(1.) The publicans and harlots were like the first son in the parable, from whom little of religion was expected. They promised little good, and those that knew them promised themselves little good from them. Their disposition was generally rude, and their conversation profligate and debauched; and yet many of them were wrought upon the by the ministry of John, who came in the spirit and power of Elias. See Luke 7:29. These fitly represented the Gentile world; for, as Dr. Whitby observes, the Jews generally ranked the publicans with the heathen; nay, and the heathen were represented by the Jews as harlots, and born of harlots, John 8:41.
(2.) The scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and elders, and indeed the Jewish nation in general, were like the other son that gave good words; they made a specious profession of religion, and yet, when the kingdom of the Messiah was brought among them by the baptism of John, they slighted it, they turned their back upon it, nay they lifted up the heel against it. A hypocrite is more hardly convinced and converted than a gross sinner; the form of godliness, if that be rested in, becomes one of Satan’s strongholds, by which he opposes the power of godliness. It was an aggravation of their unbelief, [1.] That John was such an excellent person, that he came, and came to them, in the way of righteousness. The better the means are, the greater will the account be, if not improved. [2.] That, when they saw the publicans and harlots go before them into the kingdom of heaven, they did not afterward repent and believe; were not thereby provoked to a holy emulation, Rom. 11:14. Shall publicans and harlots go away with grace and glory; and shall not we put in for a share? Shall our inferiors be more holy and more happy than we? They had not the wit and grace that Esau had, who was moved to take other measures than he had done, by the example of his younger brother, Gen. 28:6. These proud priests, that set up for leaders, scorned to follow, though it were into the kingdom of heaven, especially to follow publicans; through the pride of their countenance, they would not seek after God, after Christ, Ps. 10:4.