Jesus’ parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-31 relates directly to Jesus’ conversation about John the Baptist, at least in the way that the author has structured the narrative in Matthew 21:23-32.
When the chief priests and elders asked Jesus an accusatory question about his authority, he answered with one of his own: did John the Baptist’s authority come from God or from human beings? The opponents refused to answer. If they said “from God” they would indict themselves. Why then did they not listen to him? If they said “from man,” they would lose the support of the crowds who believed John was a prophet.
If the opponents would not answer Jesus’ question, Jesus would answer it himself. The parable of the two sons is the beginning of his answer.
There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.” Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (Matthew 21:28-31)
Similarly, under John’s preaching tax collectors and prostitutes regretted their previous decisions and started doing what God wanted them to do.
Jesus then turned his attention to the chief priests and elders. They had refused to admit that John spoke for God. Even if they didn’t believe John to begin with, Jesus said, they should have recognized what God was doing when they saw sinners turning to the way of righteousness.
For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:32)
In the repentance of tax collectors and prostitutes, the chief priests and elders had all the evidence of John’s authority that they needed, and that should have caused them to repent themselves.
These few verses contain two of Matthew’s three uses of the verb μεταμέλομαι – to feel sorrow or regret. In the parable of the two sons (verse 29), it’s the word Jesus uses to describe what motivated the first son to go work in father’s vineyard. In verse 32, it’s the word that describes what the chief priests should have done when they recognized John’s divine authority. To everyone who heard John’s preaching, be they prostitute or chief priest, God offered the opportunity to change their minds and start living uprightly.
The same goes for those who heard Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom of God in word and deed. Jesus not only offered his hearers an opportunity to realign their lives with the justice of God, the showed them what true righteousness looks like.
Perhaps some think that real change is impossible, or that those who were notorious sinners don’t deserve even the opportunity to change their minds. Other might be under the illusion that religious titles and public piety are a substitute for inward righteousness or outward justice. The ministry of Jesus – and John before him – undermine both assumptions.
In the ministry begun by John and completed by Jesus, God offered a “second chance” to those had chosen the path of disobedience. Those who have a hard time believing that change is either possible or necessary really don’t understand what God was doing in Jesus.
One aspect of evangelicalism that I will never give up is the belief that God can change lives through the preaching of the gospel, that he seeks out even the worst sinners and offers them salvation, and that those who belong to God should support his work and rejoice in its results.
But the need for repentance is not limited to tax collectors and prostitutes. Chief priests and elders need it too.