(Matthew 21:28-32 NRSV)
I love the two parables in Matthew 21 regarding vineyards. Vineyards are a also used in the prophets as allegory or parable. A similar use by Jesus can be used beyond theological beliefs and opinions. There are simple truths to be gleaned from these parables, reminders of who we are as believers or followers of Jesus, whether in the context of Israel and the coming and present kingdom, or as we are in Christ.
Jesus is addressing the religious leadership, those who are actually keeping people out of the kingdom. I would like to think at least some of them did so ignorantly, but I am sure others did so with intention. That is what is told here, in the parable of the two sons. The first says no, I will not work in the vineyard today, but later has a change of heart, a repentance. The second, I used to see as a liar, says yes but then also has a change of heart. Where the second was a liar, to me, I now can also see as one who truly desired to do the right thing but was swayed either by others or by the daunting task ahead. We could view both as believers, both see the suffering and sacrifice of the labor. One has some personal issues, taken from how Jesus answers with prostitutes and tax collectors, the lowest sinners, whether or not they are followers of Christ. The second seems to be in good standing.
I am sure in Jesus' day there were sinful followers. Today we are sure of it, though washed clean, we still have our faults. I have come to believe on principle that I can not say some faults are worse than others, in general sense. We all have them. I think this is one area we get in trouble as those who are suppose to manifesting the grace of God. In this first parable the point seems to be clearly made. The ones who first said no I believe to equated with the sinners. They went and worked to bring the harvest. Is sin important? Of course it is, but I see Jesus saying that in this case, it is the labor of the harvest that he is looking for, not the personal failings of the laborers. There is grace here. The second son, or group, is called out simply for not laboring. The apparent 'goodness' is left out of consideration. This no doubt angered the hearers. Jesus is saying that the sinner who labored go in ahead of the 'righteous', or more properly, the 'self-righteous'.
Unfortunately this is a common scene today, as it was then. We have all heard stories of those who are not followers that see the poor witness of a proclaimed follower and therefor are turned away due to hypocrisy. Can you see this parable from inside the fellowship as well? Paul warns of both behaviors as being detrimental to our calling throughout his letters. Jesus is looking to the inside, and warning, hoping for repentance.
As there was grace towards the sinning laborers, we can find grace towards other biblical people as well. Abraham is mentioned in Romans 4, Galatians 3, and Hebrews 11 with praise for his faithfulness, his belief in God and his willingness to follow God. No mention is made of Abraham's failings, of which there were at least a few. God remembers Abraham for his faithful labor. This is the testimony we ought to follow. We should not be questioning others faithfulness based on outward appearances. There is no 'unfairness' involved. The evidence Jesus sought against the religious leadership was self-incriminating, not a position we should ever find ourselves to be in. Serve God as you are able and be thankful for the service of others, no matter your view of outward perceptions.
Jesus mentions John the Baptist as having told both groups, all of the people, as such there is no excuse. I think this statement worsens the entire outlook for the religious and self-righteous. Here, they are told that they saw the others working. This in itself was a indication of what was being called for, the call of the kingdom looked for labor. These folks watched the labor of the first, the sinners, yet did nothing. They were still relying on their supposed righteousness to speak for them. Even though Jesus still calls the first sinners, I wonder if they had changed as they labored, as they grew in their purpose. The growth was not due to rules and regulation, but to experience through labor. Jesus uses their formerly known associations as further evidence of faithfulness and to drive home the parable. Jesus had more to say...