Notice anything special about the Gospel According to Matthew? Though once a tax collector and outcast, Matthew writes the story of Jesus’ ministry for a devoutly Jewish readership. He calls attention to Jesus as the promised Messiah, fulfilling the Law, bridging the era’s of what we call the “Old Testament” and “New”. Within Matthew’s narrative, Jesus’ parables have a distinctive tone: emphasis is given to the implicit warnings in the Lord’s teaching, warnings spoken specifically to the religious establishment of that time and place. Though we are not of that time, the established church from every age must listen carefully to Matthew’s message; warnings to the religious remain relevant. Even among the Gospel crowd, God's Good News can be resisted with fear and selfishness. Matthew records this conflict via an encounter between Jesus and Jerusalem’s religious elite, along with Mark and Luke, though the Parable of the Two Ironic Sons is found only here, in the second part of Matthew 21:23-32.

Jesus was frustrated: “And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Is it possible to see, yet not believe? Usually, it’s the other way around. Here, the tables have turned: Jesus’ enemies have seen – along with everyone else in the region - John the Baptizer’s ministry of preaching and baptism in the desert. They saw the crowds repent and respond. Though they saw, they would not believe. They resisted.

More tables are turned. Having already turned the tables of moneychangers in the temple courts, Jesus turns the tables on his questioners, meeting their question with his own. He flips expectations further, contrasting a polite son who rebels with an insolent son who changes his mind and obeys. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The father had wanted his sons to work the vineyard – a biblical metaphor Jesus employs from Isaiah and Jeremiah, signifying the work of God's servants among God’s beloved. Jesus’ implication is that the first son, like so many self-serving leaders of Israel over the ages, does not care for God’s people, God’s vineyard, nor God himself. Jesus again turns tables, prophesying about the kingdom; the least likely to enter lead the way; tax collectors and prostitutes go ahead of priests.
They did not like his parable, nor his prophecy. Do we? The tale of these two sons is aimed at those who say the right words, perform the proper rituals, yet avoid service and true ministry; those who supposedly love “truth,” yet scorn people. Outwardly pious, yet inwardly rebellious and apathetic to the Spirit’s leading, they are unwilling to work in the Father’s vineyard. Those who truly love God demonstrate devotion and faith through love of others, a willingness to tend to the vineyard.

Tax collector, prostitute, or priest: who needs God’s grace? All of us. At some point, the tables must turn for us to understand, to realize God’s grace is given, not earned. We must see the low lifted high, and acknowledge the humblest who lead the way. As this becomes clear, we are led to carry the message of God’s love and power to save – to tend the vineyard – beyond the confines of church ritual and congregational comfort. Evangelism happens beyond Sunday. We are led out into the wilderness where John baptized sinners, far beyond the Jerusalem Temple. We follow Jesus to the tables of tax collectors like Matthew. Good news results in good works. God’s love for us empowers our love for others.