Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (28 September 2014)



  • Exodus 17:1-7 & Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 [Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 & Psalm 25:1-9]
  • Philippians 2:1-13
  • Matthew 21:23-32

Gospel: The two sons

This week all three major lectionaries will focus on the parable of The Two Sons, although the RCL will also include the preceding verses where there is a dispute over the authority of Jesus.

Textual questions

The material shared by all the major lectionaries is only attested in Matthew. In addition, the manuscript tradition reveals considerable uncertainty about this passage, with the surviving texts being so confused that we cannot make a firm decision on the original version of the story. Bruce Metzger devotes almost two pages to a discussion of the textual confusion in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.

In short, Matthew 21:28-32 does not make a strong claim on us for acceptance as an authentic Jesus tradition, although the orphan saying found in vs 31 may prove to be of historical value.
The Jesus Seminar commentary in The Five Gospels notes:

(1) the significant textual variations as copyists have tried to make sense of this difficult parable.

(2) 58% of Fellows votes red or pink, seemingly because (a) the contrast between prostitutes and tax collectors on the one hand, and self-righteous audience on the other seems authentic Jesus; (b) the “genuine dilemma” posed for any Galilean family by the dishonorable response of both sons to their father’s request.

(3) Sufficient Fellows voted gray (11%) and black (32%) to bring about a weighted average of just 0.46 for the core parable. The reasons for these negative votes include (a) some doubts as to whether the story is actually a parable (given the lack of metaphor, exaggeration or reversal of anticipated outcomes); (b) the typical Matthean contrast of saying and doing; (c) the lack of attestation outside Matthew; (d) the poor fit of conclusion and story; and (e) the way that the conclusion links this story back to the previous unit By Whose Authority?

Similarly, Gerd Lüdemann tends to dismiss the parable while affirming the saying about tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom ahead of the observant practitioners of religion. Lüdemann notes that Matthew has added to the material taken over from Mark (vss 23-27), two further items:

(a) an otherwise unattested parable about two sons that puts the emphasis on obedience to the divine will;
(b) an apparently authentic saying (vs. 31c) that affirms the righteousness of the disobedient, namely tax collectors and prostitutes.

Concerning this latter saying (Matt 21:31c), Lüdemann comments:

The saying is authentic (without the addition ‘before you’), since it is offensive, rare in the world of Jesus, cannot be derived from the community and fits the main thrust of the preaching of Jesus (cf. on 11.18-19a; Luke 7.36-50). In content it corresponds with the authentic beatitudes on the poor, the hungry and those who weep (cf. on Luke 6.20-26). [Jesus, 219]

Traditional Jewish wisdom or distinctive Jesus traditions

The mostly conventional wisdom presented in the parable is also seen in this partial rabbinic parallel cited by Samuel Lachs:

… a parable of a king who had a field and he desired to hand it over to a tenant farmer. He called to the first and said to him, “Will you take this field?” He said to him,”I don’t have the strength, it is too hard for me.” So it was with the second, the third, and the fourth, they too did not accept it from him. He called to the fifth and said to him, “Will you take this field?” He said to him, “Yes!” The owner said, “On condition that you work it according to the Law?” He said, “Yes.” When the tenant farmer entered the field, he left it unworked. With whom should the king be angry? On those who said they were unable to accept it or on the one who took it upon himself and having taken it upon himself left it unworked? Should he not be angry with the latter? Exodus R. 27 [cited in Lachs, Rabbinic Commentary, 353]

On the other hand, the Jewish NT scholar, David Flusser, has noted that the attitude implicit in the saying about prostitutes and tax collectors is widely-attested in the Jesus traditions, and comes from the core values of Jesus himself:

That which Jesus recognized and desired is fulfilled in the message of the kingdom. There God’s unconditional love for all becomes visible, and the barriers between sinner and righteous are shattered. Human dignity becomes null and void, the last becomes first, and the first becomes last. The poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourner, and the persecuted inherit the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ message of the kingdom, the strictly social factor does not, however, seem to be the decisive thing. His revolution has to do chiefly with the transvaluation of all the usual moral values, and hence his promise is especially for sinners. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31-32). Jesus found resonance among the social outcasts and the despised, just as John the Baptist had done before him. [Jesus, 111f]

An orphan saying?

Finally, for this week’s reflections on this seemingly marginal and not very authoritative text, we can note the glimpse into the dynamics of the related but different missions of John the Baptist and Jesus which this passage may preserve.

John P. Meier discusses Matt 21:31-32 as one of what he calls “stray traditions” relating to Jesus and John the Baptist. He sets it over against Luke 7:29-30, which reads as follows:

29 (And all the people who heard this,
including the tax collectors,
acknowledged the justice of God,
because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.
30 But by refusing to be baptized by him,
the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)

In both Matt 21:31-32 and Luke 7:29-30 we have texts that appear as additions to other traditions with which they had no original connection:

  • Matt 21:31-32 is appended to the Parable of the Two Sons (vss. 28-30)
  • Luke 7:29-30 is appended to Jesus’ words about John the Baptist

Both these passages contrast a group of Jewish people who responded to John’s message, including “tax collectors” in each case.

There are, however, a great many significant differences between these traditions, and this leads Meier to agree with Fitzmyer against these being from Q, and in favor of them being independent stray traditions “which mention the important detail that John’s message and baptism were well received by at least some religiously and socially marginal groups like tax collectors and prostitutes, while they were largely rejected by Jewish leaders.” (p. 169)

Meier adds:

That this tidbit of information may indeed have a historical basis is made likely by its echo in Luke 3:10-14 (the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers all seek moral guidance from John) and in the Jewish Antiquities, where Josephus seems to distinguish a first wave of adherents to John, made up of morally zealous Jews, and a second wave, made up of ordinary Jews (Ant. 18.5.2 §116–19).

Meier builds on this insight to suggest that historical reconstructions which portray John as a recluse and “super puritan” — while Jesus is seen as a party animal eating and drinking his way around Galilee — are exaggerated. Rather, Meier suggests that Jesus may have built upon and then shifted the emphasis upon a prophetic word to the social and religious outcasts which he inherited from his mentor, rather than creating it entirely by himself.

He suggests:

[John’s] tie to the “desert” (however widely that designation be interpreted), his need to have abundant water at hand for numerous baptisms, his own ascetic diet of locusts and wild honey, and perhaps his jaundiced view of what was going on in the Jerusalem temple, all kept him within a restricted area, and thus kept him from a wide-ranging, all-inclusive mission. On the whole, sinful and therefore marginal Jews came to the ascetic and therefore marginal John, not vice versa.
In contrast, Jesus undertook an itinerant mission throughout Galilee, parts of Judea, parts of Perea, parts of the Decapolis, and perhaps even areas north of Galilee reaching as far as Tyre and Sidon — as well as engaging in numerous journeys to Jerusalem. All this cannot be put down to small-town wanderlust. Jesus was consciously reaching out to all Israel in its last hour, especially to marginal groups like tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners in general, as well as to the not-especially-sinful but not-especially-well-shepherded poor. Thus, we see again the familiar pattern of nexus-yet-shift. Jesus picked up on John’s contact with the morally marginal, but shifted to a more expansive approach, an aggressive program of outreach through a peripatetic mission throughout Israel and its environs. (p. 169f)

Meier then identities a shift in message that went with the new method:

Corresponding to this geographical and psychological shift was a shift in the basic message. Moving from the Baptist’s fierce stress on repentance in the face of imminent doom, Jesus, while entirely abandoning John’s call and eschatology, shifted the emphasis to the joy of salvation that the repentant could experience even now as they accepted Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, somehow present and yet to come. (p. 170)

Meier’s reference to Jesus “entirely abandoning” the distinctive message of John the Baptist (“repent and be baptised”) along with its underlying eschatology (of an imminent apocalyptic event) is intriguing. Such a view would tend to align Meier with the approach adopted by the Jesus Seminar when it controversially argued for Jesus as rejecting the apocalypticism that was typical of his mentor (John the Baptist) and his followers (such as Paul). The Seminar has been strongly criticised for taking such a view, so it is interesting to see Meier coming to a similar conclusion.

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