Who’s the obedient son? (Matthew 21:28-32)

Our stories frame the world we live in. Jesus’ stories reframe our reality as a kingdom of God, a realm under God’s governance.

Perhaps we want control because we fear what others will do to us, or perhaps it’s a penchant for power. Jesus’ story says that evil isn’t in control, and neither are we. We’re in the hands of a Father who loves the human family. Our Father gives his children genuine responsibility to partner with him in looking after his farm. That’s the meaning of life.

So, how do people react to what our Father of humanity expects of his children?

  • I know some who go, “No way! Nobody tells me what to do!” But they do what the Father wants anyway: they’re genuinely caring people. Recently I stood in a government queue, chatting to a retired bloke who spends his days driving buses for Princess Margaret Children’s Hospital and other groups — one of hundreds of volunteers.
  • I know others who go to church and make all the right noises, but live for selfish advantage. To their clients and neighbours, they’re not good news.

Do you think the King anticipated these reactions? If faith in Christ means trusting the leader God appointed for our world (loyalty to God’s anointed), who are the ones who keep faith with God?

Jesus story:

Matthew 21:28-32 (my translation)
28 “What do think? A man had two offspring. He approached the first and said, ‘Work in in the vineyard today.’ 29 He replied, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later, he changed his mind and did it.
30 He approached the other, and said the same thing. He replied, ‘Indeed, I will,’ but he took off. 31 Which of the pair did what the father wanted?”
They say, “The first.”
Jesus says to them, “I tell you the truth that tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you with the way of righteousness and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw that, you did not change your mind later and believe him.

Jesus’ stories reframe our world. His audience (the leaders of Jerusalem) identified with the obedient son, seeing themselves as Torah-observant. They viewed Jesus as a rebellious son, challenging the family’s authority by overturning the temple. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked (21:23).

Jesus’ story reframes them like a mirror image. They aren’t the obedient son: they’re as lethal as the sons of Jacob who planned to kill Joseph and lie to their father. To preserve their own power, they will get rid of the Son who pleases the Father (3:17; 12:18; 17:5).

They assert their power by ostracising the disobedient — the prostitutes who profit from infidelity, the tax collectors who profit from financing the oppression. The Son who does what the Father wants has been fellowshipping with these “sinners.” These rebels are entering communal life in his kingship ahead of the Bible scholars (scribes) and Torah-enforcers (Pharisees).

Their exclusion game is disobedience, promoting human power. That’s why they want to be rid of Jesus. God’s voice is not like that. He’s always been calling humanity home, through the prophets, most recently John the Baptist (21:32). The disobedient son doesn’t recognize the Father’s voice. They just admitted it (21:24-27).

With one last twist of the mirror, Jesus reveals he is not playing their exclusion game against them. He invites the religious leaders to follow the prostitutes and the tax collectors who are already ahead of them in changing their minds about living as Father wants. While the leaders are protecting their own power, the obedient son is already restoring the realm to the Father.

Maybe that’s the difference between the church and the kingdom. Jesus’ story reframes our vision beyond ourselves as those who’ve obeyed the gospel, to see the world as the kingdom of the obedient Son.

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Update 2022-04-07: Original translation added (instead of ESV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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