Parables? Just why?

In Matthew 21, Jesus tells a parable of two sons. One refuses to work in his father’s vineyard but later repents and serves his father; the second says he will do the work but ends up not following through. Jesus used this parable to expose the hypocrisy and hard-heartedness of the Pharisees and religious leaders in contrast to those who recognize their need for a savior, repent, and humble themselves before God. 

What Is a Parable?

In order to understand the parable of the two sons, it’s important to first know a little about Jesus’ parables, what they are and what they are not, and why Jesus frequently used stories to communicate profound spiritual truths.

There is no denying that Jesus was a masterful teacher. He chose His words carefully and spoke with an authority few had ever encountered. In fact, it was the very temple guards the Pharisees had sent to seize Jesus who returned, saying, “no one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46).

It wasn’t just rhetoric or oratory skills that brought crowds to Jesus either. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me,” (Matthew 28:18) Jesus told His disciples. This divine authority was manifest in both His miracles and His teaching.

Of course, we know from the gospels that Jesus often delivered doctrine to the multitudes through direct sermons. However, He also concealed spiritual truths within simple stories, known as parables.

There are various meanings of the word “parable.” The most common and widely accepted translation amongst biblical scholars comes from its relationship with two Greek words “para,” meaning “alongside,” and “ballo,” meaning “to throw” or “to hurl.”

Parables, then, can be described as simple, straightforward stories that Jesus added or “threw alongside” His teaching to illustrate a spiritual principle.

Jesus’ parables:

– Always make a comparison to divine truth

– Have a clear, decisive point 

– Include believable, relatable illustrations (they could all be true)

– Do not include elements of myth or fantasy

These kinds of parables are not found outside of the gospels in the New Testament and are rarely included in the Old Testament, with the exception of Nathan’s parable and rebuke of King David (2 Samuel 12:1-15).

For most of His ministry, Jesus taught in sermons and parables. However, in His last year, Jesus shifted almost exclusively to teaching in parables (Matthew 13:34-35) following His clash with the Pharisees in Matthew 12.

What exactly had the Pharisees done to encourage such a shift?

The answer to that question provides essential context for the parable of the two sons.

What Did the Pharisees Do That Caused Jesus to Teach in Parables?

In Matthew 12, we read of three events involving Jesus and His disciples that drew the ire of the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day.

What were they? 

  1. Jesus and His disciples began to pick heads of grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry (Matthew 12:1-7)
  2. Jesus healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue (Matthew 12:8-13)
  3. Jesus healed a mute, demon-possessed man for all to see (Matthew 12:22-29)

When confronted for “breaking” the Sabbath, Jesus chastised the Pharisees for turning the Lord’s Day, which God created as day of rest and grace for mankind, into a burden and a ritual devoid of all meaning and joy.

The Pharisees hated Jesus for challenging their authority like this and hated Him even more for claiming He alone was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). They then began to look for ways to kill Him (Matthew 12:14).

However, this wasn’t even the most egregious offense on the part of the religious leaders.

The Pharisees could not deny Jesus’ divine authority. They themselves were eyewitnesses to His miracles and had heard His teachings. They had also just seen Him heal a man and cast out demons.

However, rather than give Jesus the credit and honor He deserved, the Pharisees, in the hardness of their hearts, lied to preserve their political power, proclaiming, “this Man casts out demons only by Beelzebub the ruler of demons” (Matthew 12:24).

Imagine, the Pharisees chose to give glory and credit for Christ’s miracles (which they had seen) to Satan instead of Jesus.

To Jesus, this was “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” and an “unpardonable sin” (Matthew 12:30-32). And for this reason, Jesus began to teach almost exclusively in parables from then on (Matthew 13:34-35).

As John MacArthur writes, “by deliberately rejecting the truth, the sworn enemies of Christ had lost the privilege of hearing any more plain truth from his lips.” (14)

It’s important to remember that the parables contained important spiritual truths to go alongside His direct teachings. For those who have hardened their hearts and rejected the truth, however, spiritual blindness and the inability to discern the meaning of plain truths only gets worse.

When asked by His disciples why He taught in parables, Jesus made it clear:

“To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11-13).

Many Pharisees, religious leaders, and Jewish listeners struggled to grasp the meaning of Christ’s parables, but not because they were intended to be confusing. As the famous preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon argued, “the fault was not in the light, but in their bleared eyes.” 

How the parables were received (or rejected) and understood (or missed) revealed who had “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” In the case of the Pharisees, the extent of their spiritual blindness and disbelief was on full display.

Why does this matter?

Christ’s shift to teaching in parables as a result of the arrogance, spiritual blindness, and rejection of the Pharisees ultimately set the stage for the events of Matthew 21 and the meaning of the parable of the two sons.

What Is the Context of the Parable of the Two Sons?

Matthew 21 is a pivotal chapter in the gospel and significant turning point in the ministry of Jesus for several reasons.

Of course, Matthew 21 marks a major event in Jesus’ ministry in that it opens with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11) followed by Jesus cleansing the temple for the second time (Matthew 21:12-17).

Shortly after, Jesus walked by a barren fig tree on the side of the road, cursing it for not bearing fruit, only leaves (Matthew 21:18-19). The tree withered shortly after.

Now this may seem like an odd and even impulsive act on Jesus’ part, but considering how fig trees were often used as a symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10Joel 1:7), we know this encounter was used as an object lesson for Jesus to rebuke Israel and its leaders. The shame of their fruitlessness was exemplified in their rejection of the Messiah.

Matthew Henry said it best in his commentary: “our Lord Jesus found among them (Israel) nothing but leaves.”

Once again, however, the Pharisees, who’d proven themselves spiritually barren, were determined to challenge Jesus’ authority.

They could no longer deny that Jesus had authority. They instead asked, “by what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).

This was, of course, a trap to try and get Jesus to admit publicly that His authority came from above, which He had done before (John 5:19-23, 10:18). Saying so would have given the Pharisees an excuse to kill him, as they had tried before (John 5:18, 10:31-33).

Instead, however, Jesus turned the table on the Pharisees, asking them where the authority of John the Baptist had come from (Matthew 21:24-25).

Unfortunately for the Pharisees, John the Baptist was a widely respected prophet and teacher in Israel. It was also John the Baptist who had publicly heralded Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God and Messiah (John 1:29).

As John MacArthur writes in his Bible Commentary, “they (the Pharisees) cannot affirm John’s ministry without condemning themselves. And if they deny John’s legitimacy, they fear the response of the people” (1164).

All it took was one question for Jesus to silence the Pharisees. He, however, was not done. Jesus would then force the Pharisees to acknowledge their hypocrisy using two short but significant parables.

What Is the Parable of the Two Sons Really About?

To solidify His point, Jesus told a parable, the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32). Here, He described two sons. One son rejected his father’s request but later regretted it and went to work. The second son promised he would work but ultimately failed to show up.

Jesus asked the Pharisees, “which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:31).

The Pharisees had no choice but to confess, “the first.”

Jesus then made the point of the parable known:

“Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe in him” (Matthew 21:31-32).

Of course, following through on one’s promises is an important spiritual truth. Doing is more important than saying. However, what Jesus was really getting at, given His recent history with the Pharisees, is that true repentance is more important than outward piety.

Though religious on the outside, the Pharisees were often shamed by those who embraced the ministry of John the Baptist and later Jesus. The fruit of their faith was evident.

Those who came to Jesus, no matter their station, were the ones who, fully aware of their guilt and need for a savior, surrendered their lives to Jesus. They are like the first son, who repent and go to work.

According to John MacArthur, “the idea that repentant tax collectors and harlots would enter the kingdom before outwardly religious hypocrites is a recurring theme in Jesus’ ministry that infuriates the Jewish leaders.” (1164)

The Jewish leaders saw themselves as spiritually elite and worthy of God’s favor. They act the part, but as Jesus had already exposed, they were spiritually baren inside and out.

The Pharisees also knew the truth yet chose to live a lie rather than surrender their earthly political power. It was this rejection of Christ as the “chief cornerstone” that ultimately led to further pride, spiritual blindness, and enmity between the Pharisees and Jesus (Matthew 21:42).

This time the Pharisees got the point of the parable (

Matthew 21:42).

This time the Pharisees got the point of the parable (Matthew 21:45). However, it would not matter. Their minds were made up, their hearts were hardened, and their course was already set.

Jesus concluded, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (Matthew 21:43).

In contrast, those who embrace Christ, seek the truth, and act on His teachings will be given “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” They will “know the truth and the truth will set them free” (John 8:32). They will see the fruit of the spirit grow in their lives and be the first welcomed into the kingdom.

References

MacArthur, John. Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed Through the Stories Jesus ToldThomas Nelson, 2015.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Sproul, RC. What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean? Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 53. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1907.

Published by Fellowship of Praise: ALL praise to God our Reason, Hallelujah!!!

To God be The glory. Let us praise God together for His ALL in our lives, Amen.

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