Many parents will give a knowing nod when they hear today's Gospel. They've asked a son or daughter to give a hand, say in washing the dishes. One child may have reflected the reaction of the second of the sons in today's Gospel. He was full of good intentions and readily agreed to do what was asked of him. But he was all talk and no action. He did nothing.
Then we can recognise the other brother. He was a surly chap, who at first refused to work in his father's vineyard. But then he had a change of heart and obeyed his father. We have to admit that neither son was ideal. But at least the first son did eventually do what was asked of him, while the second didn't. With the Pharisees and elders we would agree that the first son's response was preferable to the second's.
In today's Gospel, Jesus uses the example of the problem parents have with uncooperative children to illustrate the problem God has with us, his children.
Jesus directs this parable at the Pharisees and elders who had just challenged his authority to teach in temple. They'd already refused to decide whether or not John's baptism was of heavenly or human origin. If they had conceded that John was a divinely inspired prophet they would have had to believe in Christ, whose mission John had endorsed. But if they denied that John acted with divine authority they would have antagonised the crowd, which believed in John.
Lacking the courage and honesty to decide for or against John, they would not have believed Jesus if he had told them that he spoke and acted with divine authority. Jesus realised that there's no point in taking seriously someone who is not open to the truth.
This was the background for today's parable about the two brothers. The Pharisees and elders were like the second brother. They claimed to be willing to do God's will. They thought they, above all others, were pious and obedient. And yet their commitment was shallow and empty. They refused to heed God's prophet, John the Baptist, and would not accept Jesus himself. Since they refused to lead the way in endorsing Christ's mission they were not true workers in God's vineyard.
But tax collectors and prostitutes, whom the religious authorities wrote off as worthless sinners, did recognise John as a true pattern of righteousness. They heeded his word and repented. They were like the brother who at first refused to obey his father, but then had a change of heart, and did what was asked of him. To the indignation of the religious authorities Jesus said that these repentant sinners would enter heaven before those who thought their place there was assured.
It would be a great mistake for us to think that this parable was directed only against the Pharisees and elders. Jesus is questioning each of us. Are we like the second brother and the religious authorities? Do we claim to be devout, religious people, who are willing to obey God, while, in fact, refusing to do his will?
Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us that it's not sufficient to recognise Jesus as Lord, if we don't heed his command. True members of God's family must not only hear God's word, but also do it.
Or are we like the first brother and the sinners -- people who at first refuse to obey God, but then repent and do his will? If so, we're in a far better state than those who are full of empty good intentions.
Neither of the brothers nor what they represent is ideal. Instead, we must be people who say, 'Yes' to God's will, mean what we say and do it.
We may well be surprised to find that those who had been dismissed as being beyond redemption are welcomed into heaven, while some we would have expected to be present are not there. We pray that we may be numbered among the repentant sinners whom Jesus welcomes into his kingdom.