Matthew 21:28-32

28 “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’

29 He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went.

30 Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.

32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.

regretted (v.29) = lit. “to care for” (care about), repented himself

I go, sir (v.30) = lit. “I, sir” — to contrast himself with the other son

For the purpose of this contrast, He had taken them back to John’s ministry. They had heard him, and professing obedience had been disobedient. The publicans and harlots had heard him, and they who had said, We will not go, had repented … There is no question as to what Christ thought of those men; He knew perfectly well that they were sure John’s ministry was from heaven. John came in the way of righteousness, and they knew that they, the exponents of the ethic of Judaism, could not quarrel with the great ethic he declared; they knew it was the way of righteousness; and yet when he pronounced the way of righteousness they did not obey; they who affirmed their loyalty to God, would not obey the ethic through John.  And it was not merely true that the publicans and harlots believed and obeyed, and they did not; the truth was that they refused to believe, even though they saw the signs of the publicans and harlots entering into the way of righteousness. They not only refused to be persuaded by John himself, but when they saw the effect of John’s preaching, that those men and women whom they despised, and would not help, were helped, and lifted, and healed they still refused.  — Morgan, page 260

By their spoken word Israel’s leaders professed to be sons, but by their disobedience to the Father’s word they proved they were not sons. When John had come appealing to them for repentance, they had professed to repent but had not, for they had not produced fruits of righteousness. Tax collectors and others of similar character were changed and brought forth fruits of righteousness (cf. Luke 5:27-29; 7:36-50). Christ demonstrated that He was willing to accept sinners, but the leaders would not admit that they were sinners; and they therefore refused to come to Him for salvation. Thus in this parable Christ had shown that those who claimed to be sons of the kingdom were not sons; their disobedience to His word revealed that fact. — Pentecost, page 384.

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