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A Durable Hope

God patiently wills that we believe on him.

It's interesting what our Lord does with parables. Sometimes he leaves them with no comment at all, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which has no comment whatsoever at the end. Sometimes he follows them up with a question. Then people give an answer. Sometimes he interprets the parable completely, like the parable of the soils, where our Lord goes through and explains every part of the parable. Sometimes, as in this case, he asks a question, they answer, and then he gives a postscript.

Now the question first: "Which of the two did the will of his father?" That's the question our Lord addresses to those who are listening.

They said, "The first."

And Jesus said, "Amen. I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. John the Baptist came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him." Now watch the play on the word "believe"; it's going to be used three times now. "You did not believe him. But the tax collectors and the harlots believed him and even when you saw it"—in other words, even when you saw John the Baptist saying it again, or when you saw the fulfillment of the way of righteousness of John the Baptist—"you did not afterward repent and believe him."

Understanding this parable requires studying the story elements.

Before we make some theological observations on the parable, let's first study the parable as a story. I've been trying to give you some helps on how to study the parables of Jesus so that you can study them for yourself. There are some rules you should follow in the study of a parable, and the first rule I'll give you is a rule that C. S. Lewis made so important and fundamental a part of his own literary criticism. It's this: In the study of any story, before you do any interpretation of the story, you should be sure you understand it as a story by itself.

In fact, Lewis wrote a very famous essay on Hamlet in which he analyzes some seven interpretations of Hamlet and says they're all wrong because they start wrong. They don't study Hamlet as a story before they rush in to interpret the motivations of the Prince of Denmark. You cannot run in too quickly and study the motivations of all the characters until, first of all, according to Lewis, you see the story in Hamlet. It's a great story. It's an adventure story. See that first; then make the observations. The same thing is true of the parables of our Lord. You do well in studying a parable not to too quickly try to interpret the parable, but first see it as a story.

Now, in this case we look for the variables. We look for the constants. We try to see what the story turns on. What are the elements of the story? Usually that gives you a very great help in understanding how to interpret the story.

In this parable, the constant of course is the father, who stays the same in both cases. The vineyard stays the same in both cases. And his question, "Will you go work in the vineyard?" stays the same in both cases.

The variables are the two sons. In this story each son is portrayed as having a fault. It's the fault that each son has that becomes really the turning point of the story, of the adventure that we have.

Notice the first son. The first son's fault is that he too quickly opposes his father's will, as if the father's will were against him. In other words, his problem is the problem of defiance or impudence. By the way, do you notice that this parable is very short, but that it is electrifying in its emotional impact? Do you notice how your mind, as you read this short little story, irresistibly added dialogue that you know from your own experience? Anybody who ever had a struggle with a father or mother or daughter or son over the contest of wills empathizes with this parable.

Notice how the parable goes. The first son has a fault, and the fault is that when the father says, "Will you go work in the vineyard?" he says, "No, I will not!" And our minds quickly add more dialogue:

"I'm sick and tired of grapes. I've been working out in that stupid vineyard every single day. I'd like to do a few things with my friends for a change." And we could add more dialogue. Our minds trip off that way. This is a parable about life. And the father says, "Will you work in the vineyard?" He says, "No!" But later on he repents. The word literally means he changed his mind, and in fact, he does go to the vineyard. Well, that's the first half of the story.

I would describe this boy in the following fashion: he is a big problem at breakfast, but he's a joy at supper. At breakfast this kind of boy upsets the family to no end. You're trying to get everybody organized for the day, and when you meet up with a boy like this, or a daughter like this, it can really foul up a whole day. Everybody gets ulcers from people like this. "I'm sick and tired of these projects that you come up with every day, Dad. And I'd like to do a few things that I'd like to do for a change." And so he says no. But later on he does go, in fact, to the vineyard. And so at supper he's a joy.

Now the second son. Let's look at him in the story. He's more complicated. That's probably why he comes second.

He says in the morning what he thinks his father wants to hear. He says yes. Notice our Lord pours it on a little bit in the story. He says, "Yes, Sir." Our Lord adds the word "Sir" there, the word of respect. Don't you like kids who say "sir"? That's a boy who really respects his dad. "I go. Sir." So this boy says yes in the morning, says yes, he'll go. But in fact he does not end up in the vineyard.

I would describe him in the following fashion: He is a joy at breakfast—let's give him credit for what he does—but a big problem at supper. And of course, this parable is more of a supper parable than it is a breakfast parable. The father says, after the first son says, "No, I don't want to go," and stomps out of the house, "Whew." The father gathers himself up and to the second son he says, "Well, would you like to go out and work in the vineyard today?"

The boy says, "I'm awfully glad you suggested that, Father. I was thinking this morning during quiet time, You know, I would love to go work in the vineyard. I love vineyards. After all, I realize that we're earning money so that we can go to college; it's a project. I just can't wait to get out there and do my share to help this family and earn the money we need to support ourselves so that we don't have to go to the poor house, and we can send all the kids to college! Thanks, Dad, for the suggestion. Mother, you better put another steak on for me, because I'm going to go out there and get a real sweat up and work."

Ever met people like this? I mean they really do cheer up the morning. The only problem is, he does not end up in the vineyard. His problem is the problem of evasiveness. He has a problem of being slippery. He said what he thought the father wanted to hear, but he does not go into the vineyard. So at supper he's a big problem.

Can I make one more technical observation about the story before we interpret it? The symbols of Greek drama were two masks. Many theatres have these two masks on either side; they're supposed to hang from the same string. One mask is the mask of horror and tragedy, and the other mask is the mask of comedy. The greatest actors, the greatest comics, are those in the history of entertainment who were able to mix these two together. One way to judge a great story is, "Does it have a tragic thread and a comic thread? Are the two threads present in the great show?"

This is the greatness of a comic like Red Skelton or a comic like Charlie Chaplin. They were able to match and bring together the threads so that in "City Lights" Charlie Chaplin has you laughing hysterically one moment and weeping the next moment. I think this is the greatness of Woody Allen, a contemporary film maker. In Hollywood Danny Rose he does a magnificent job of mixing comedy of the slapstick kind and then a sense of the tragic element of life. He brings them together in the same character so that he has you laughing one moment and then he has you crying.

In a good adventure story you should have both threads, and in all of our Lord's parables, both threads are present. He's a good storyteller. The parable of the Prodigal Son has a comic thread and it has a tragic thread. This parable has a comic and a tragic thread.

Notice the comic thread, or the joy thread, in this parable. It has to do with the first son. He says, "No, I don't want to go into that stupid vineyard!" But he goes. And you're laughing in the afternoon with the laughter of joy. He did go. We don't know what happened to him during the day, but he went. And that's the surprise. Lewis defines comedy as "the sudden perception of incongruity." We didn't expect this kind of kid to go into the vineyard, but he did. Have you ever met people and said, "That person's a Christian? I never expected he would be or she would be"? But they are. That's the comic thread.

And then, of course, the tragic thread is also present in this parable. The tragic thread has to do with the second son. As I see it, there are three tragic elements in the second son.

One, he never meets his father. One thing you can say for a family argument is you do meet each other in a family argument. Sometimes a family will say to me proudly, "We've never had an argument." And very often those kids will say, "I never knew who my dad was. I never met my father. I never met my mother."

Remember in "Fiddler on the Roof" Reb Tevye was always struggling with his daughters? That's why they loved him. I remember a girl once came in and said to me, "I wish I had a father like Reb Tevye, who struggled with me—fair and square, but struggled." That's how you meet.

But notice that second son does not meet his father. His father says, "Would you go work in the vineyard?"

"Yes, Father, I'd just love to go work in the vineyard. Thanks a lot for the suggestion. Dad. I'll see ya." And he avoids his father. That's a tragic thread. He never meets his dad. The first son did when he said, "No, Dad, I don't want to go into your stupid vineyard." Believe me, he meets his dad. They have a good argument.

The second tragic thread is he doesn't repent, and repentance is one of the most exhilarating experiences of life—to change your mind.

Notice how our Lord picks that up later when he says, "You didn't repent and believe." He didn't have the experience of repentance.

And of course—the third tragic thread—he never ends up in the vineyard. The vineyard in our Lord's parable is the kingdom of God. Every Jew who heard the parable would recognize that, because the vineyard is the symbol of Israel fulfilled. He doesn't end up in the vineyard! He said yes. He went to worship. He had all the right answers. But he didn't end up in the vineyard! That's tragic.

Through this parable, Jesus demonstrates his understanding of human nature.

Now what does the parable mean? As I see it, there are three observations we can make about this parable.

First a fundamental observation that could be made about every parable, and it's this: in this parable our Lord shows us that he really understands human nature. That's very important. Scholars who interpret our Lord's parables have pointed out that Jesus' parables are always accurate agriculturally and they're also accurate psychologically.

In this parable our Lord shows that he fully expects sharp reactions to his claim upon our lives. Notice, he's the storyteller; he's the one who said that when we hear the claim he wants to make on our lives, we would at first glance say, "No, I don't want to do that." He points that out. This parable shows that he is not surprised by the sharp reaction of the first son. He builds it into the story. But later on the boy changed his mind and went into the vineyard.

I don't know about you, but I find that a very comforting thing. It's comforting to me to know that our Lord recognized that the stakes were so high on the claim of his lordship over life that when we first heard it, many of us would say, "No, I don't want to do it."

The second insight may not be quite so comforting. Jesus also makes it clear in this parable that he fully expects the evasive and slippery ones, too. He's not surprised when many of us use the right words to say, "Oh yes, we worship you, Lord. We love you. We think you're wonderful." But we have no intention of going into the vineyard. So in the parable, our Lord shows that on the one hand the rebel does not surprise him, and on the other hand the person who says, "Yes, I'll go" but doesn't go—that person doesn't surprise him either. The parable is a profound insight into our Lord's understanding of us.

The parable teaches that the will of God is that we (eventually) believe on him.

What else does this parable teach? The main teaching of this parable our Lord himself makes clear by the question he asks. As you know, the parables of Christ usually teach a very simple point. There's usually one or two points at the most that our Lord is making in these short stories. In this one he makes it clear by the question he asks. Now listen to the question: "Which one did the will of the father?" This parable is a parable about the will of God. And what is the will of God? It is that we believe in him. Our Lord makes that clear by his postscript when three times he uses the word believe.

"When John the Baptist came in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him. The harlots and the tax collectors believed him." (By the way, that's a comic thread. That's a surprise. They don't seem to be the type, do they? But they believed him.) And then—oh, this is the hardest part of all—"And even after you saw it [even after it was made very clear] you did not afterward repent and believe him." It's a parable about belief. It's a parable about faith. Notice that faith, in this parable, is shown as a whole, stormy event of word and work—act and deed—wed together.

Faith, according to this parable, is not only hearing the Word of God, but doing it. The parable is profoundly ethical, in a sense, because your faith is not only seen in what you hear, but what you do. Not only what you agree to but what you do with your life. And so the parable is a parable. He pulls the two together.

Our Lord lived out what he is now advocating. When you look at Jesus Christ's life, you'll see that what he said and what he did are inseparable. He didn't only speak the word of love to you and me; he died on the cross. His love is not just an illustration on a cross; that's the very thing itself. He is word and work inseparable. And now he advocates that to us. It's a parable about faith.

The parable teaches that second thoughts are better than first thoughts.

A third observation: I think the parable makes a whimsical point, too. It's wonderful. This parable shows that second thoughts are better than first thoughts. Did you ever think of that? At first glance the father's will did not make sense to the son, but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. This parable is a parable about the durability of the King. He's durable. He wears well. The more you think about the King and his will, the more sense it makes. At first glance you may be not so sure you want to let Jesus Christ be lord of your life. But the more you think over the matter, the more his lordship makes sense. It's a parable that teaches that second thoughts are better than first thoughts.

I put it this way: It's better to finally believe what at first you could not say, than to say at first what you do not believe. Our Lord teaches that in this parable. He'd rather have us say, "No, Father, I don't want to go into the vineyard," and then struggle with the Father's will and repent and discover his will to be true, than to have us say at the beginning, "Oh yes. Father, I'd love to go work in the vineyard; I just love vineyards; I love work; I love worship," and then not go to the vineyard. Notice the tremendous integrity in the parable, integrity that you find in the ministry of our Lord. It's better to finally believe what at first you could not say than to say at first what you do not believe. Our Lord makes it clear that doesn't impress him one bit.

I'm going to read you a quotation from C. S. Lewis. This is at the end of The Grand Miracle, where Lewis has made the point that the Grand Miracle is Jesus Christ himself. This is what he says: "With this, our sketch of the Grand Miracle may end. Its credibility does not lie in obviousness. Pessimism, optimism, pantheism, materialism—all have this obvious attraction. Each is confirmed at the first glance by multitudes of facts. Later on each meets insuperable obstacles. The doctrine of the coming of Jesus Christ, though, works into our minds quite differently. It digs beneath the surface. It works through the rest of our knowledge by unexpected channels, harmonizes best with our deepest apprehensions and our second thoughts," (that's where I got the idea that second thoughts are better than first thoughts) "and in union with these, undermines our superficial opinions. It has little to say to the man or woman who's still certain that everything is going to the dogs."

There's your pessimist. You know, a pessimist has a hard time with the gospel; it's just too good. The pessimist is a person who is hanging black crepe paper on everything because he thinks everything is going to the dogs, everything's getting worse and worse. That works in life, you know. You can build your whole life on that. It means you never have any disappointments in life, because you have one big permanent disappointment that starts off everything.

After the first service somebody gave me a definition of an optimist and a pessimist, and I thought it was good. I'll share this with you as Jess Thorne shared it with me in the first service. He said, "Earl, I'll give you one of those pessimist/optimist definitions. An optimist is a person who says, 'This is the best of all possible worlds.' And the pessimist says, 'I was afraid so.'"

But the pessimist is just assuming that everything is deteriorating. It works; you don't get disappointed. Pessimists have very few disappointments. Also, they do a lousy job raising children. They do a lousy job building marriages and building relationships. So later on it meets insuperable obstacles, he says. But at first glance it's supported by multitudes of facts.

Donn Moomaw is sort of a person, so he has a lot of stories that are really funny. This is true. When he was preaching at Bel Air, a lady came up to him after a sermon and said, "Oh, Reverend Moomaw, I just have to tell you that every sermon you preach is better than your next." He thanked her in the way Donn would thank her for that. Then he went home and began to think that over. Now that is the compliment that a pessimist can give. If you're a pessimist and you want to give a pessimist compliment, that is one. "Every sermon you preach is better than your next." It's a downhill slide.

So the gospel says very little to pessimists, because they don't believe anything good can happen anyway. It says very little to the optimist who believes everything is getting better and better. You say, "I want to tell you about the message that you're saved in Christ."

"Oh, saved? I didn't know I was lost, thank you. I don't have the problems that others seem to have. Everything is coming up roses for me."

The gospel says little to the optimist. Or to the person who thinks that everything is God; that's the pantheist. "As long as I'm God, why do I need God?"

Or to the person who thinks everything is electricity; that's your materialist. Listen to this last line: "Its hour comes when these wholesale creeds have begun to fail us."

That's what happened to the first son, and our Lord is so sure of himself, he can wait for that. That's why these parables of the coming of the King are not panic parables. That's why Jesus can tell stories in the face of death. He tells stories! Holy Week—that's when he told these stories. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday of Holy Week he told stories. He told parables like this.

He's so sure of himself, that the Father can wait for that son to change his mind in the middle of the afternoon, because given time, the gospel makes sense. Jesus Christ is the rock to build your life on. If you don't build your life on him, on what do you propose to build your life?

Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).

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Sermon Outline:


I. Understanding the Parable of the Two Sons requires studying its elements

II. Through this parable, Jesus demonstrates his understanding of human nature

III. The parable teaches that the will of God is that we (eventually) believe on him

IV. The parable teaches that second thoughts are better than first thoughts