« Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) | Main | Accountablilty: The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) »

Repentance: The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31)

An old proverb says, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back." Males have a reputation for stubbornly refusing to turn back when it appears to females they are lost on the road. They drive on and on in hope of finding that familiar landmark. Yet men are not alone. Most people believe it is important to stick to their decisions. Once they have a set a course or taken a stand, they despise appearing weak or indecisive by flip-flopping to another position. Politicians will hold on fiercely to discredited platform planks simply because it seems more statesmanlike not to waver in one's convictions. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure that you are indeed on the wrong road.

Changing your mind is not easy, especially if you have publicly staked your credibility or your ego on a particular opinion. Teenagers, in particular, find it galling to admit their parents might be right. A young man would rather turn blue from cold than admit openly he should have worn a jacket as Mother suggested. A young woman will go to great lengths to avoid confessing she made an error in choosing a friend. As someone has said, "Everyone complains of having a bad memory, but no one complains of having bad judgment."

Jesus admired those who had the capacity to change their minds and lives for the good, those who recognized they were wrong and who did something about it. He called that openness to change repentance, and repentance was the first message Jesus ever preached (Matthew 4:17). Repentance is a radical change of mind and outlook, not a one-time act of obedience. Northrop Frye calls repentance a "spiritual metamorphosis."

The power of this parable lies in its simplicity. Two sons say one thing, yet do another. What is the difference between the two? Are both examples of repentance? Change, of course, does not have to be for the good. One can be traveling down the right road and turn back as well.

The difference lies in the psychological tension. By refusing his father's command, the first son creates suspense in the listener. Why does he refuse? How will the father respond to his disobedience? The first son puts himself at risk, and the conflict cries out for resolution. Something dramatic is about to happen if he follows through on his bold refusal.

The second son risks little by making an empty promise. There is no open defiance. Even if he doesn't go to work, he can always make some excuse to placate his father. Perhaps he fell ill or forgot or was called to an emergency. He has hidden his intention to disobey under the cover of polite hypocrisy.

As in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” or the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders” or the “Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor,” the emphasis is on what one actually does. Jesus asks, "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" (verse 31). It is hard to read minds, easy to read actions. True repentance has tangible, measurable results.

When I feel selfish, stubborn, and willful, I think about this parable and it brings me back to my senses. Am I going to do God's will or my own? As one has said, "Most people are either repenting or rationalizing." Christians need a heart of repentance. Indeed, the first four beatitudes seem to describe the penitent attitude God desires (Matthew 5:1-6). It may well be that David was a man after God's own heart primarily because he had the capacity to repent.

Just as the father in this parable gives his son time to reconsider and repent, the kindness and patience of God spares us when we rebel against what we know is right. God gives us space to have second thoughts, but only we can adopt the attitude of being open to them. Repentance is a life to be lived, not a doctrine to be learned.


1.Can you tell a story from your own life where you have made an “about-face,” a 180 degree turn?

2.Writing to a group of Christians, Paul seems to imply it is easier to persuade people to be baptized than to convince them to repent (2 Corinthians 12:21). Would you agree? Why?

3.Whenever the two words "repent" and "believe" are used together in the New Testament, repentance precedes faith (Mark 1:15; Matthew 21:32; Hebrews 6:1). How would you explain this order? How is it that one must repent in order to believe?

4.Repentance is often associated with sorrow and remorse. Ancient Jews repented in sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21). Why? Can repentance exist without regret?

5.There is a saying, "It takes a big man to admit he was wrong." "Big" in what sense?

6.Josh Billings once said, "It is much easier to repent of sins that we have committed than to repent of those we intend to commit." Do you agree that repentance is a permanent change of outlook and not just a one-time act? Can you give examples of people who rationalize rather than repent?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 11, 2007 8:41 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

The next post in this blog is Accountablilty: The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35