Their Answer. The question that Jesus posed is now filled out: the chief priests and elders are required to adjudicate between the two brothers. For “doing the will of” God distinguishes mere profession from active compliance, and so here it suitably distinguishes between the attitudes of the two sons. Jesus’ question thus allows only one reasonable answer, which the Jewish leaders duly provide, but, like David in his response to Nathan’s parable (2 Sam 12:5–7), in so doing they provide Jesus with the ammunition he needs to mount an attack in v. 32 on their own inconsistency. First, however, he spells out its consequences.
The Jewish leaders (like the second son) claimed to be living in obedience to God’s law, and kept themselves strictly apart from those who (like the first son) made no such claim. It was Jesus’ interest in such “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1–2) which gave rise to another parable about two sons (Luke 15:11–32). In this gospel the “underclass” of Jewish society have also been described as “tax collectors and sinners” (9:10, 11; 11:19), and on two occasions the Jewish tax collectors have been even more dismissively linked with Gentiles (5:46–47; 18:17). The substitution of “prostitutes” here for either “sinners” or “Gentiles” gives an even more offensive comparison, especially in so male-dominated a society as first-century Palestine. These are the people whom the chief priests and elders most despise and most heartily thank God that they were not like (cf. Luke 18:11). They had no place in respectable, religious Jewish society — how much less in the kingdom of God. So when Jesus speaks not only of their entering God’s kingdom but also going in there first, he is making a no less radical pronouncement than when he spoke of Gentiles coming into the kingdom of heaven to sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while the “sons of the kingdom” found themselves outside (8:11–12).
What Next? It seems that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you – at least the chief priests and elders are entering. But then there is a question how much is implied here by proagō, “go before.” There are a couple of possibilities:
- At least it means a reversal of priorities, with the chief priests and elders admitted but only after the sinners have been welcomed in. In that case they must endure the humiliation of being led, “shown the way” (a possible sense of proagō; 2:9) by those they have regarded as beyond the pale.
- But in 8:11–12 the fate of the “sons of the kingdom” was not merely demotion but exclusion, and while proagō normally implies that the other person will follow (cf. 14:22; 26:32; 28:7), in the wider context of Matthean statements about the future for Israel’s leaders many interpreters conclude that it implies here “get there first” and so “take the place of.” In the parable of 25:1–12 those who go in first enjoy the feast, but the door is shut before the others get there. And in 7:21–23 the fate of those who do not “do the will of my Father” is to be excluded from the kingdom of heaven.
- Exclusion is not explicit here, but it would be hazardous to argue from the choice of the verb proagō that here there is, unusually, hope for the ultimate salvation of those who have rejected God’s call—unless, of course, like the good son, they subsequently change their minds, and respond to the preaching of righteousness as the tax collectors and prostitutes have done.
John the Baptist. One should not forget that this parable is preceded by Jesus’ question about John the Baptist and from where came his (authority) to baptize. It is a remarkable testimony to the high view of John the Baptist in this gospel that whereas previously Jesus has condemned those who refused to believe and respond to his own message (11:20–24; 12:41–42), he now places rejection of John’s ministry on the same level.
Those previous denunciations were of unbelief in Galilee, where Jesus had himself been active. Our narrative is located in Judea, where according to this gospel’s story-line he has not previously been heard, and so he speaks now of John as his southern predecessor and “colleague”, to whose call Jerusalem had responded before he himself took up the mission in the north (3:5).
The repentance and its appropriate “fruit” which John demanded according to 3:7–10 matches closely the Matthean sense of “righteousness.” John came to show people how to live according to God’s will, and those who “believed” him repented and were baptized. They included especially the less respectable members of Jewish society, for whom repentance was an obvious need, and perhaps for that reason the chief priests and elders saw themselves as not in need to such “righteousness” as it was something they assumed they already possessed. The obvious and enthusiastic response of the common people should have caused them to change their mind later.
If they refused John’s call because they are unable to discern that John was “of God,” then it is not likely that they will attribute heavenly authority to Jesus.
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
- Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 411-12
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000)
- R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 801-06
- R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 292-94
- Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 282-85
- Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2000) 33-43
- Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 480-84
- Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 272-74
- David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
Scripture: The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm