by Dr. Robert R. Seyda




Verses 25b-26: The priests and the Jewish leaders discussed Jesus’ question. They said to each other, “If we answer, ‘John’s baptism was from Heaven,’ then He will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe John?’ But we can’t say, ‘John’s baptism was from some human source.’ We are afraid of the people because they all believe John was a prophet.” So they told Jesus, “We don’t know the answer.” Jesus said, “Then I will not tell you who gave me the authority to do these things.”

The Aramaic Version says here: “…they were reasoning among themselves.” Reasoning actually means: “trying to rationalize, to come up with an acceptable answer.” The question that Jesus asked was whether or not what John the Baptizer did authorized by God or man? In the Greek, it says, “from heaven or from men,” as does the Aramaic Version. This was not unusual in the vernacular of Jesus’ day. For instance, one Rabbi once asked: “If the moon did not appear at its proper time, they need not declare its existence, since Heaven already has declared it.”1

In the Jewish mind, God did not make decisions on His own. After all, He did say: “Let us make humankind in our image, in the likeness of ourselves.”2 A respected Rabbi said: “Under no circumstances does the Holy One do a thing in His world without consulting with the heavenly court.”3 Others believe God would consult with His ministering angels.4 However, another well respected Rabbi has a different take. He says, that the words “let us” should be understood this way: “It has been shown to you that God created something from nothing only on the first day, and afterward He formed and made things from those created elements, i.e., fire, wind, water, and earth. Therefore, when God said ‘us,’ He was talking to those created elements.5 There is real cause to believe that the purpose for this last Rabbi’s explanation was to counter any belief in the Christian Trinity.

But the real pressure comes from what the Jews themselves taught: “He who defiles the sacred food, despises the festivals, abolishes the covenant of our father Abraham, gives an interpretation of the Torah not in line with Jewish laws, and publicly shames his neighbor, even if he has learning and good deeds to his credit, he has no portion in the future world, because he has despised the word of the Lord — this refers to him who maintains that the Torah is not from Heaven.”6 This reference to Heaven was a synonym for God, and considered so sacred, that they wrote: “Do not utter the name of heaven in vain.”7

We also see this use of “heaven” in the place of “God” in the writings of one Rabbi who says that Abraham was so generous that, “He arose and built stately mansions on the highways and left there food and drink, and every passerby at and drank and gave thanks to Heaven.”8 He goes on to say that if a person is lazy and does no work all week so that on the Sabbath he has nothing to eat, but took some of his consecrated funds to buy food, he would be guilty in the sight of Heaven.9 He also speaks of “mean heartedness toward Heaven.”10 Also, to be honored by one’s master should be as dear to a person as “the honor of Heaven.”11

So whenever Heaven is spelled in Jewish writings with a capital “H” as a proper noun, it is always a reference to God’s realm of dominion and power. A respected Rabbi points out, that the Scriptures make this clear: “’Heaven is my throne,’ says Adonai, ‘and the earth is my footstool’,”12 and then points to where the Psalmist says: “’Praise Adonai from the heavens! Praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, all His angels! Praise Him, all His armies’!”13

So Jesus took all this into account when He asked the community leaders about John the Baptizer’s ministry being ordained by Heaven or by man on earth. We do not know how long they conferred with each other, but it was not easy because of the way Christ formed the question. To this Jerome says: By this, He shows both that they knew the answer but were unwilling to say it and that He also knows the answer but will not speak it because they remained silent. Immediately, then, He tells a parable designed to convince them of their own sinfulness and of the necessity that the kingdom of God be transferred to the Gentiles.”14

Verses 28-31a: Tell me what you think about this: There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ The son answered, ‘I will not go.’ But later he decided he should go, and he went. Then the father went to the other son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ He answered, ‘Yes, sir, I will go and work.’ But then he did not go. Which of the two sons obeyed his father? The Jewish leaders quickly answered, ‘The first son.’”

Jesus was not going to allow these uncommitted community leaders to get off that easy by not indicating whether they accepted John the Baptizer’s authority as coming from Heaven or from man. So He offers an indirect question in the form of a story. We find this same parable repeated in the Apocryphal Gospels.15 This was not a difficult riddle, and the Jewish leaders answered without hesitation. What they didn’t know was that they were identifying themselves. But Jesus had to point it out to them.

The story Jesus is telling encapsulates what His Heavenly Father also dealt with during the days of Ezekiel, “You people might say, ‘The Lord isn’t fair!’ But listen, family of Israel. I am fair. You are the ones who are not fair! If good people change and become evil, they must die for the bad things they do. And if evil people change and become good and fair, they will save their lives. They will live! They saw how wicked they were and came back to me. They stopped doing the evil things they did in the past. So they will live! They will not die!16 In the same way, Jesus wanted to put the focus on these obstinate religious leaders and force them to realize that by being against John the Baptizer they were being against God.

Verses 31b: Jesus said to them, “The truth is, you are worse than the tax collectors and the prostitutes. In fact, they will enter God’s kingdom before you can get in.”

Early church Bishop Hilary saw a spiritual interpretation in this parable. He writes: The first son represents the people sent by the Pharisees. Urgently admonished by God through the prophecy of John to conform themselves to His commandments, yet they remained insolent, disobedient and contemptuous to God’s warnings. They put their faith in the law and despised repentance from sin, glorying instead in the noble prerogative that they had from Abraham. Later they came to believe through the miracles worked by the apostles after the resurrection of the Lord, and, having returned by a faithful act of the will to evangelical works, they repented and confessed the guilt of their former insolence.”17 Scholars believe that since it would not be easy to interpret the parable of the two sons in relation to the call of the Jews and the Gentiles, that Bishop Hilary chose the first son to represent the sect within Judaism that represented those most committed to living by the commandments – the Pharisees.18

Then Bishop Hilary continues: “The second son represents the group of publicans and sinners who later returned to the sinful state in which they lived at the time. They were instructed by John to expect salvation from Christ and to be baptized and to believe in Him. When the Lord says in the parable that the second son did not go as he promised to do, he shows that these people believed John. But because they were not able to receive the teaching of the gospel through the apostles until after the Lord’s Passion (for it was then that the mysteries of human salvation were to be accomplished), they did not go. He didn’t say that they refused to go but simply that they did not go. Their failure to go does not make them guilty of disbelief because to do so would have been very difficult. Therefore, it is not that the second son did not want to do immediately what he was ordered to do but rather that he was unable to do it. His will is shown free from guilt by the obstacles of the circumstance.”19 Jesus does not leave this interpretation up to them. He then explains it.

Verse 32: “John came showing you the right way to live, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John. You saw that happening, but you would not change. You still refused to believe him.

Jewish sources present an interesting description of these tax collectors, which are better known in the KJV aspublicans(a Latin term that is shorthand forpublic contractor”). The offices of these local tax agents existed among the Jews under Roman occupation. The Romans were accustomed to projecting fees ahead for five years, especially the customs due on exports. These were mainly added value taxes and therefore, as the value placed upon goods varied, it lent themselves to extortion; hence the unpopularity of the publicans, especially when, as under the Romans, they were seen as Jews exploiting their fellow Jews. Even Jewish scholars notice how such people of ill repute in the New Testament, were coupled with sinners1 and the most degraded persons.2

The use of tax collectors and prostitutes in the New Testament as examples of the worst of sinners is found on many occasions. The common theme of the two was first and foremost, money. They did not do what they did out of the kindness of their hearts or for righteousness sake, but for the money they received. According to Jewish traditional teaching, what both of them did for a livelihood made them unclean and not permitted to participate in any religious function, nor to enter the Temple grounds. As such, they were considered to be the last to convert.3 But for each one that did, if it were available for them in that day they certainly would have sung those famous lyrics: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

The Jews report that taxes were levied on pearls,4 – slaves,5 and boats.6 And you talk about guilt by association, Rabbi Simeon said: “But this shows you that there is not a family containing a tax-collector, in which they are not all tax-collectors; or containing a robber, in which they are not all robbers; because they protect him!”7 Jewish commentators state that tax-collectors were considered unscrupulous, often taking more than their due.8 Therefore, any other member of the family was consider a black sheep, just as they were.9 As a consequence, in the case of any transgression, the whole family was punished.10 Even so, an honest tax collector could serve as a witness in court, while herdsmen could not,11

Jesus was not attempting to denigrate the leading priests and elders by making a literal comparison between them and the second son who lied, and pointing to the tax collectors and prostitutes as being represented by the first son. His main point here was to show the power of a repentant heart, something these religious leaders were sorely lacking. After all, they had the opportunity to believe John the Baptizer’s message, but didn’t, and now they had another opportunity to accept the truth with Jesus’ declaration but didn’t believe Him either. So in fact, they were worse than either one of these sons.

A careful perusal of this verse will also indicate that Jesus did not eliminate the possibility that some of these leading priests and elders would come to their senses and accept His role in the kingdom of God. He merely points out to them that they lagged far behind such disrespected people as the tax collectors and prostitutes in seeing that He was the door to that kingdom. Their hypocritical attitude and placing more emphasis on tradition than on the Word of God blinded these religious leaders. While none of them are excluded from salvation, their attitudes prevented them from seeing the only true door where they could enter in. But our Lord was not finished.

1 See Matthew 9:10; Luke 5:30, 7:34

2 Matthew 21:31

3 Thomas Whittemore, Notes, and Illustrations of the Parables of the New Testament, Universalist Publishing House, Boston, 1832, p. 276

4 Mishnah, op. cit. Sixth Division: Tohoroth, Tractate Kelim, Ch. 17:16 where it speaks of a “Mezuzah for pearls” – which was a device for smuggling pears in order to avoid paying the taxes. (This reference may be hard for the reader to decipher.)

5 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 127b

6 Ibid. Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 10b

7 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mezikin, Masekhet Shebu’oth, folio 39a

8 Ibid. Footnote (38)

9 Ibid. Footnote (39)

10 Ibid. Footnote (40)

11 Ibid. Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 25b

1 Rabbi Eliezer ben Sadoq: Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 1:2, [II:7 A]

2 Genesis 1:26 – Complete Jewish Bible

3 Rabbi Yohanan: Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 1:1, [II:4 J]

4 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana op. cit. Piska 4:3, p. 89

5 Nachmanides (Ramban), Commentary on the Torah, op. cit., loc cit. pp. 52-53

6 R. Eliezer of Modi’im: Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 99a

7 Ibid. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Megilah, folio 3a

8 Rabbi Nathan The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 7, p. 46

9 Ibid, Ch. 11

10 Ibid. Ch. 14

11 Ibid. Ch. 27

12 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Isaiah 66:1 – Complete Jewish Bible

13 Nachmanides (Ramban), Commentary on the Torah, op. cit. Genesis 1:8, Bereshith, p. 37

14 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 3, 21:27

15 Gospel of Thomas, 65

16 Ezekiel 18:25-28

17 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 67.3

18 Ibid., footnote 6

19 Hilary, ibid.

20 See Matthew 9:10; Luke 5:30, 7:34

21 Matthew 21:31

22 Mishnah, op. cit. Sixth Division: Tohoroth, Tractate Kelim, Ch. 17:16 where it speaks of a “Mezuzah for pearls” – which was a device for smuggling pears in order to avoid paying the taxes. (This reference may be hard for the reader to decipher.)

23 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 127b

24 Ibid. Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 10b

25 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mezikin, Masekhet Shebu’oth, folio 39a

26 Ibid. Footnote (38)

27 Ibid. Footnote (39)

28 Ibid. Footnote (40)

29 Ibid. Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 25b

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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