What is the point of Jesus' three parables about the two sons, the wicked husbandmen, and the marriage of the king's son? I've never really liked these.
The parables were directed at the Sanhedrin. In the parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-32), one son refuses to go and work in the vineyard, but later repents and goes to work. The second son says he will go, but doesn't. According to Barclay, the tax collectors and prostitutes said they wouldn't work, but they turned their lives around. The Jewish leaders are the people who said they would obey God and then did not. The ideal son would be the one who agreed and obeyed. Of the two sons, the one who repented is preferred. This speaks to two classes of people: those whose practice is much better than their profession and those whose profession is much better than their practice.
If you could write a sound bite for this parable, maybe it would be: the really good person is the one in whom profession and practice meet and match.1
The second parable (Mark 12:1-12) is about the vineyard. Jesus used terms familiar to the people, especially the Sanhedrin.
- The owner of the vineyard is God.
- The vineyard represents the people of Israel.
- The servants are the prophets.
- The son is Jesus.
- The cultivators are the rulers of Israel.
When you put the players into the parable, you can see the point Jesus was driving home to the Scribes and Pharisees.
The parable is full of truths.
- God is generous. The vineyard had everything.
- God is trusting. The owner left the cultivators to run the vineyard. God trusts us to run our lives.
- God is patient. He gave the cultivators many opportunities to pay their debt.
- God is just. God might bear long with disobedience and rebellion, but in the end He acts.
- Jesus regarded himself as a son not a servant.
- Jesus knew he was going to die. The cross was not a surprise ending.2
The third parable from Matthew 22:1-14 is about the marriage of the king's son. The Jewish custom was to send an invitation without the time. After the preparations have been made, the final summons was issued. In this parable, the invitation was refused.
The refusing guests symbolize the Jews. Long ago, they had been invited by God to be His chosen people. When God's son came into the world, they were invited to follow him, but they refused.
The people in the highways stand for the sinners and Gentiles who never expected an invitation.
Jesus used familiar stories that the rabbis told, which involved kings and garments. The first rabbinical story told of a king, who invited his guests to a feast without telling them the exact date and time; but he did tell them that they must wash and anoint and clothe themselves that they might be ready when the summons came. The wise prepared themselves at once and took their places to wait at the palace door. The foolish thought they would have plenty of time. The summons came without warning and the wise went in. The foolish were locked out. The rabbinic parable tells of the duty of preparedness for the summons of God, and the garments stand for the preparation that must be made.
What about the wedding garment? That always disturbed me: if they got the invitation on short notice, why would they be rejected just because they didn't have the appropriate attire?
Jesus' lesson is showing how the Gentiles and sinners would be gathered in. The door is open to all, but when they come, they must bring a life which is appropriate for the occasion. Grace is not only a gift; it is a grave responsibility. A person cannot go on living the life he lived before he met Christ Jesus. He must be clothed in a new purity and a new holiness and a new goodness. The door is open, but the door is not open for the sinner to come and remain a sinner - rather for the sinner to come and become a saint. The parable had nothing to do with what the guest wore on the outside, but with what he carried on the inside.3
Wm. Barclay. The Gospel of Matthew. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, Vol 2 pp. 259-260.
Wm. Barclay. The Gospel of Mark. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, pp. 280-283.
Barclay. Matt. pp. 271-274