The Question of Authority and Jesus’s Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21

John W. Welch

Deeply valuable symbolism is embedded in all of Jesus’s parables, and his parable of the willing and unwilling two sons in Matthew 21 is no exception. As Jesus entered the Temple the morning after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Chief Priests approached him and demanded to know: “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). Jesus answered these questions about his authority by telling a simple story about a man who had two sons. When asked to go down and work in the vineyard, the first son initially refused, but then he went, while the other initially said yes but then does not go (21:28-30), or so it seems.

While this parable may be useful in parenting, Jesus may well have been talking in veiled terms about something else. Indeed, in speaking about Jesus’s parables Luke 15, Joseph Smith once taught: “I have a Key by which I understand the scriptures—I enquire what was the question which drew out the answer?”[1] As can be seen, by focusing on the question asked by the Chief Priests about Jesus’s authority, Joseph’s key unlocks the meaning of this parable in Matthew 21:28-31. The following is a shortened and largely unfootnoted version of my chapter about this parable in the collection of essays in honor of Robert L. Millet, Let Us Reason Together, published in 2016 by the BYU Religious Studies Center.

Several significant points are embedded in this instructive story as this parable takes the question of authority into divine realms. Involved here is no ordinary father, no ordinary vineyard, or any ordinary pair of sons.

The two sons were asked by the father. In the end it becomes clear that this father is not just their father, but God the Father.[2] The King James Version chose to supplement the text by inserting the word his in italics, when Jesus asks, “Whether of them twain did the will of his father?” (21:31). Nevertheless, the Greek reads, “Which of the two did the will of the father (epoiēsen to thelēma tou patros)?” (emphasis added). While it is possible that the definite article here (tou) can simply be understood as taking “the place of an unemphatic possessive pronoun when there is no doubt as to the possessor,”[3] thus allowing the KJV rendition “his father” as a legitimate translation at the objective level of reading, Jesus’s wording here echoes the same wording found in Matthew 7:21 regarding the one who enters the kingdom of heaven, namely he “who does the will of the Father of mine who is in heaven (ho poiōn to thelēma tou patros mou tou en tois ouranois)”. Thus, the use of the definite article in the question, “which did the will of the father” invites readers to see the willing son and his father in this parable as representing Jesus and his Father in Heaven. The sons were thus called to serve by and with authority directly from the divine principal whom they would serve. Those with authority do not take that authority upon themselves, but are “called of God, as was Aaron” (Hebrews 5:4).

These two sons were both offered their commission to “go” by way of commandment from the father. These invitations came, not as polite requests, but as imperatives, literally, “go [age] down [hyp-]” (hypage, Matthew 21:28). The father said the same to the second son (Matthew 21:30). While the word hypage can have a number of meanings, including to “go away,” “withdraw,” “depart,” “go forward,” or simply to “go,” its sense always depends on the context in which it is used. Here, if the setting is in the father’s house, the sons are being asked to leave the comforts of home and go work in the fields; if the setting is in the father’s mansion on a hill, or in heaven, then the sons will be going down from there. In any case, the prefix hyp- (from the preposition hypo, under) in composition conveys some sense of being “under, as well of rest as of motion,” or, interestingly, “of the agency or influence under which a thing is done, to express subjection or subordination.”[4]

Moreover, in being asked to go, the two sons were told when and where they were to serve—today, and in the vineyard—so their authority was specific. The message is that those with authority do not have the option of selecting another time or place. They can either respond with a yes or a no, but they cannot modify the father’s request.

Beyond these points about the nature of authority, this parable draws its listeners back to the heavenly realms. In so doing, this story calls to mind events in the Council in Heaven, where a Father indeed had two very different Sons, and where Jesus received his commission and authority from the Father. In fact, the Father’s command to his first son, “go down,” invites the listener to understand this authority to have been given somewhere above.

These heavenly, primeval overtones are more evident in the Greek text of Matthew than in the Latin Vulgate or in the English of the King James Version or other translations. The most widely supported Greek texts literally read as follows: “A man had two sons, and going to the first he said, ‘Go down this day to work in the vineyard.’ He answered, ‘Not as I will,’ but then reconciling himself to the task he went. Going to the other, he [the Father] said the same. And he answering said, “I, Lord!’ And he did not go.” The differences between this rendition of the Greek and the usual English translations of this text—which is clearly much more than a fable—may be explained as follows.

The first son initially answered the Father’s request by saying, “Ou thelō,” which the KJV translates as “I will not” (emphasis added). But thelō is not a future tense verb. It does not mean “I will not, or shall not.” Ou thelō is a present tense verb, meaning “I don’t want to,” or “I don’t wish to,” or “I’d rather not,” or, idiomatically one might say, “Not (ou) [what or as] I will (thelō).” In Elizabethan English, “I will not” could mean “I do not will it,” as does the Latin nolo, but this is not how modern readers hear this crucial word.[5] Doing the Father’s will (thelēma—which is the noun cognate to the verb thelō) is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew leading up to Christ’s teaching in this parable and immediately beyond (see Matt. 6:10; 7:21; 12:50; 18:14; 26:42). In Gethsemane, as the Savior reconciled and submitted himself to the will of the Father, he said, “Not my will (mē to thelēma mou) but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).

The first son “goes away” or “departs from” (apēlthen) the Father’s presence. This verb is translated simply as “went” in the KJV in Matthew 21:29, 30. This word, along with the Father’s command, “go down” (hypage), may call to mind the condescension or incarnation of Jesus leaving his Father’s presence. These words were used by Jesus himself in referring to his own going away or departure, as a euphemism for his impending death and descent into the spirit prison: “Then said the Jews, Will he kill himself? Because he saith, Whither I go (hypagō), ye cannot come” (John 8:22); and “it is expedient for you that I go away (apelthō)” (John 16:7).

The onerous burden of the work asked by the Father seems to have given even the ultimately submissive first son ample reason for pause. Perhaps this son knew when he was asked to go down that there were or would be wicked tenants in the vineyard who had or would have already killed the two sets of servants sent by the landowner-father, and now in desperation the father needed a son to send. No wonder even that first son might need to think things over a bit.

At this point in Matthew 21:29, the KJV reads, “but afterward he repented,” which might seem unbecoming of the Savior. But the idea that the first son repented of some sin (an idea which is implicit in paenitentia, the Latin word used at this point in the Vulgate) is actually not necessarily implied in the little parable. The Greek word used here is not the ordinary verb used to mean “repent” (metanoeō), but rather metamelomai, which does not primarily mean “to repent.” In the Septuagint and in Koine Greek, with rare exception, it always means to feel sad about something or to change one’s mind; in Classical Greek it means to regret, or to change one’s purpose or line of conduct; or, as one might say, to reconcile oneself to the task of serving a difficult part in a larger plan. Ultimately, the willingness of the first son to submit to the Father’s will is the worthy reaction the First Son as he contemplated shouldering his daunting assignment and aligned his own will with that of the Father.

At the same time, there was another son. Most manuscripts call him “the other (ho heteros),” while some call him “the second (ho deuteros).” This son stood in utter contrast to the first. He is more than numerically second; he is of another mind or has some other purpose. He was eager at first, but in the end he would not serve his father.

Significantly when this other son answered, he did not say, “I go, Lord,” as the KJV reads, following the Vulgate, which uses the words “ (I go), domine.” The word “go,” however, is italicized in the KJV because it is actually not present in the strongest Greek manuscripts. Except in a few NT manuscripts, the other son simply says egō, kurie, “I, Lord.” In ordinary parlance, this might sound something like “Yes, Sir.” But the pronoun egō is significant. For this second son, it seems that it was all about his ego. This is the first word he says. He seems caught up with the fact that he had been called. In this context, what does this word egō entail? “I what? Lord.” “I will gladly go?” “OK, I will [grudgingly] go?” or “I get to go!?” “I have been chosen!?” “I will do it;” I want the glory! Lord.” All of these are possibilities. Moreover, the second and only other word in his reply to his father stiffly calls his own father “Lord,” which may well convey less than close personal love or filial devotion. For whatever reason, that son did not go. He was called, but not chosen.

If the first son is identifiable as Jesus, the second son in this parable can be understood as Lucifer, his brother. For Latter-day Saints, this calls to mind the scene in the Council in Heaven in which Jesus was given his commission and authority from the Father. While not exactly the same as in this parable, certain similarities stand out. On that occasion the Father asked, “Whom shall I send?” (Abraham 3:27). In the texts we have, Lucifer then responded with a barrage of six first-person pronouns, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27; Moses 4:1), adding “I will be thy son, . . . I will redeem all mankind . . .; surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). Jesus, however, simply “answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27), adding “Father, thy will be done” (Moses 4:2). These two responses typify the contrast between the course of self-interested unrighteousness and the way of submissive righteousness in answering a call from God. Because Satan sought to usurp God’s own honor, glory, power and authority, Lucifer was cast down (Moses 4:2) and, as in Jesus’ parable to the Jewish leaders, Lucifer did not go. Whether he was not allowed to go or took himself out of the running, the outcome was the same. In either case, it is interesting to note, the Father was apparently open to sending either (or perhaps, in some way, both), if they would be willing to be his agents and to do his will within the scope of the authority and assignment given to them.

Whether or not the chief priests and elders had any knowledge from traditional sources about the heavenly council in which the eternal plan was established from the foundation of the world,[6] that primal event would have been well known to the Savior and perhaps to his disciples and others of his contemporaries. Indeed, the apostle John knew and testified that the power and authority of Jesus came from the premortal world where Jesus obtained his right to rule on this earth, not to do his own will, but to do the will of the Father. The authority of Jesus was traceable back to “the beginning” (John 1:1), his judgment was just because he sought “the will of the Father” who had sent him (John 5:30). Jesus taught openly, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38), and at the Last Supper, only a few days after his Triumphal Entry in to Jerusalem and his confrontation with the chief priests and elders in the Temple, Jesus affirmed to his disciples, “I am in the Father, and the Father [is] in me; the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but [of] the Father” (John 13:10). “I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me” (John 17:8). So, it would not have been out of character or out of season for Jesus to have taken his disciples aside as they returned to Bethany after that day in the Temple, at the beginning of the Holy Week, to remind them of the source of his authority and to explain to them this meaning of this parable of the willing and unwilling two sons. But, in any event, this parable clearly answered the question, “who gave thee this authority?” (namely God the Father); and it even hints at when and where that happened in the divine council, where two sons were involved.

[1] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1980), 161. See also Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 267-277.

[2] Arland J. Hultgren, “Interpreting the Parables of Jesus,” 637: “It should go without saying that a father can represent God, and so it is.”

[3] Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), §1121.

[4] Liddell, Scott, Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 1875.

[5] H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), 729.

[6] They may have known of the pattern of authoritative callings and the heavenly council from several passages, including 1 Kings 22:19-23; Psalms 82:1; 110:3; Isaiah 9:5 LXX; Jeremiah 23:18; Daniel 7:9-14; Amos 3:7; 1 Enoch 12:3-4. See John W. Welch, “The Calling of a Prophet,” in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, the Doctrinal Foundation, eds. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988),  pp. 41, 46. In Acts 2:23, Peter’s text assumes that his audience on the Day of Pentecost knew something of the idea of God’s primordial council and plan (boulēi).