Robert Capon – Parable of the Two Sons

This Tuesday we begin the Parables of Judgement. We will be reading the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32 and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21:33-46. Please read chapter 8 “The Eye of the Hurricane” in Part III of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

Parables of Judgment:

As we looked at in the Introduction to his book, Capon divides Jesus’ ministry and his parables into three parts – Parables of the Kingdom, Parables of Grace, and Parables of Judgment. These parables respectively correspond to Jesus’ itinerant teaching ministry in Galilee, his journey to Jerusalem, and Holy Week. This final section begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in full anticipation of his death. Within this section, we will be looking at the Parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats. As Jesus approaches his Passion, the message of the parables becomes more pointed toward those who are engineering his death. If you have time, please read Chapter 1 of the Parables of Judgment to get a sense of Capon’s understanding of the essential nature of these parables.

I propose to show that judgment, as it is portrayed in the parables of Jesus (not to mention the rest of the New Testament), never comes until after acceptance: grace remains forever the sovereign consideration. The difference between the blessed and the cursed is one thing and one thing only: the blessed accept their acceptance and the cursed reject it; but the acceptance is already in place for both groups before either does anything about it. To put it another way, heaven is populated by nothing but forgiven sinners and hell is populated by nothing but forgiven sinners: the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the kosmos, not just of the chosen few (John 1:29); Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all to me” (John 12:32) the endless forgiveness, while those in hell reject it. Indeed, the precise hell of hell is its endless refusal to open the door to the reconciled and reconciling party that stands forever on its porch and knocks, equally endlessly, for permission to bring in the Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 3:20). pp.356-57

The Context:

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes his triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem and immediately proceeds to cleanse the Temple. Matt. 21:1-17. The question, therefore, is asked of Jesus by what authority (exousia) does Jesus do these things? Matt. 21:23. It is in response to this question, that Jesus tells these two parables that we are reading this week. These Parables of Judgment arise out of Jesus’ knowledge that his assertion of authority will necessarily provoke a violent and deadly response from those who have earthly authority and perceive that they also have spiritual authority.

Proof of Authority:

Capon writes: But Jesus exousia – his unique claim to an authority based on who he is, not on what he can prove himself to be – is not something he can justify to their satisfaction. He is asking them to believe in him; they, at best, are trying to decide whether they can find room for him in their minds. p.442. Jesus is not simply another rabbinical teacher who can interpret and apply the word of God. Rather, his is, as John writes, the Word of God himself. John 1:1. Therefore, salvation is not by works, be they physical, intellectual, moral, or spiritual; it is strictly by faith [pistis, trust] in him. p.442.

The Parable:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him. (Matt 21:28-32)


At first blush, this parable’s moral is that those who obey obtain salvation. The first son eventually obeys, and the second son eventually disobeys. If the parable stopped at the question-and-answer of “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first,” (v.31a) then the lesson is clear – obedience, not words, leads to salvation. No one would disagree with this moral. Actually doing God’s will, not merely promising to, is salvific.

However, Jesus does not leave the parable at the question-and-answer of verse 31a. Rather he goes on to state that “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” On what authority (exousia) does Jesus make this statement? What is it about the Publicans and the Prostitutes that bring them closer to God than Jesus’ audience of good biblically-based people? How is it that the immoral, those that clearly do not obey God’s law, go first?

Capon writes: It is not that those disreputable types will be saved because they straightened up and flew right; it is that they will be saved just because they believed. And it is not that the rulers will run a poor second because they took a nosedive into evil works after a previously respectable flight pattern. Like the Pharisee in the Pharisee and the Publican, they are condemned for not repenting of their unfaith – for their faithless nonacceptance of the grace that works by raising the dead. p.445. Doing the Father’s will is not about doing anything – certainly not acts of righteousness. Rather, this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:40.

The Judgment:

The judgment falls on the second son – the one who proclaims that he is going to do the Father’s will but does not. We in the church, Capon points out, are the second son. We may preach grace from the pulpit and sing “Amazing Grace” in the pews, but deep down we do not like it. We do not like it, because it is too indiscriminate. We will assure [the riffraff], of course, that God loves them and forgives them, but we will make it clear that we expect them to clean up their act before we clasp them seriously to our bosom. We do not want whores and chiselers and practicing gays (even if they are suffering with AIDS) thinking they can just barge in here and fraternize. p.447

We are under judgment. Oh, yes; we say we believe. But what we believe is largely an ethico-theological construct of our own devising, a system in our heads that will make the world safe for democracy, and for thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent ex-sinners like ourselves. Like the second son, our only real trust is in our own devices. Just trusting Jesus – the friend of tax collectors and sinners, the one who, while we are still sinners, dies for the ungodly – is not our idea of how to run a lifeline. p. 447

The Source of the Judgment:

Capon ends his discussion of this parable, with an insightful understanding of the source of the judgment. We think of the cosmic eschatological judgment as coming from God. But that is not where the condemnation of the second son arises. Rather, it is we ourselves who are the source of the judgment on ourselves. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Rom. 5:10. He has already forgiven you, he has already reconciled you, he has already raised you up together with Jesus and made you sit together in heavenly places with him. . . . But if you do not believe him – if you insist on walking up to the bar of judgment on your own faithless feet and arguing a case he has already dismissed – well, you will never hear the blessed silence of his uncondemnation over the infernal racket of your own voice. p.448.

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Shrimp & Grits. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.

Romans 14:13-14a.

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