The Bad, Good Son


My favorite parable Jesus told gets no respect. As one of the shortest, it’s easy to overlook. Nor does it swim in allusions. Stark, it makes its point quickly like a jab to the solar plexus.

When I get asked about this fave parable by well-meaning Christians, I often get a blank stare. I’ve had more than one tell me, “That’s not in the Bible.”

I assure you it is:

“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 changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son 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 prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you….”
—Matthew 21:28-31

I don’t think any parable Jesus told messes with the head more than this one.

The brother with the right answer missed it, didn’t he? He was probably the good son. The one who had it all together. Called dad “Sir.” He is the one his mother doted on.

The other? Possibly the surly one. Today’s version would be up in his bedroom, Rotten grapes on the vine (by ForsterFoto)its windows painted black, listening to Godsmack while he surfed those sites on the Internet.

The good son talked a good game. Said all the right things.

The bad son told dad to kiss off: “I’m not into your corporate farm lifestyle.”

But the unlikely one did the will of the father and the other didn’t.

All the talk in the world, the smooth, glib words spoken politely and in accordance with all righteousness, led to zero output on the part of the supposedly good son. He tickled the father’s ears, but the results spoke for themselves.

Recently, a post from a couple months ago (“Priorities Amid Darkness“) got some new traffic because of a link from Milton Stanley’s Transforming Sermons. The general response was a tad negative.

In all deference to my friends out there who think it’s all about believing, the more I read the Bible, the more convinced I am that all the right words and thoughts aren’t going to cut it. The proof is in the doing.

Jesus framed the parable of the two brothers in context to show the stark contrast between the people who talked and the people who actually responded. The talkers with the holy thoughts, the good sons of the world,  had convinced themselves of their standing, but they were, in fact, outside looking in.  Goats, as Jesus called them in Matthew 25.

Who was in? The people who didn’t say the right things. The surly ones, perhaps. Harlots and hustlers. Time and again, their actions in the New Testament proved louder than any audible sermon.

I’ve said, “I go, sir,” more times than I care to admit. I say it constantly in church, but then I wander off afterwards  and forget about the vineyard. I suspect I’m not alone.

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.
—John 14:21-24

The one who does the will of the Father is the one who ultimately receives the blessing of the continuing revelation of Christ. Jesus doesn’t say one word about Bible reading or prayer here. Doing the will of the Father is all that matters. The confession of faith is in the doing. And the doing proves the faith.

As James 2:19 says, even the demons believe. What sets the true followers of God apart from His enemies is that the followers do what He says. In fact, they’ll do anything it takes to do what He says.

I know that James’ “right strawy epistle,” as Martin Luther called it, doesn’t sit well with some people. But we can’t ignore the fact that the doing matters. Doing may not justify you, but the lack of doing—at least as the Bible portrays it—proves a surefire way to know who is out.

It’s just as the John passage says. The doers receive the ongoing revelation of Christ. This is why that matters:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3

Eternal life comes through knowing God. Knowing comes through the revelation of Christ. And Jesus himself said in John 14 that the revelation comes through doing what He commands. We can setup night watches and pray for days on end. We can memorize the entire Bible. But if we don’t do what the Lord says, it all comes to nothing.

That is why this verse carries meaning:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
—James 1:22

The good son, the one who promised his father he would go, deceived himself into thinking he was doing right just by his saying yes to his father. Our churches are packed with good sons and daughters with obedient words that roll off the lips, yet the vineyard goes untended.

And I wonder about all those who don’t say or think as I do, yet are doing the work of the Kingdom even as I talk a good one that ultimately produces no fruit for the God I claim to love.

30 thoughts on “The Bad, Good Son

  1. “The confession of faith is in the doing.”

    I disagree. I believe that the confession of faith is in the believing.”

    “What is it to ‘do’ the will of the Father?”

    Jesus answered, “Believe in the one whom He has sent.”

    ‘Doing’ is language of the law. ‘Believing’ is the language of faith.

    Our doing is great and we ought do out of love for the neighbor(God doesn’t need our doing…our neighbor does), but doing gains us zero points with God, otherwise the cross did not accomplish everything. And it did. There remains nothing for us to do in regard to our righteousness before God.

    The son who said he wouldn’t do it, but then did it, was the son who believed.

    The son who talked a good game, did not believe.

    • Steve,

      Believing and doing cannot be separated. Some people attempt to do this, but they do violence to the words of the Lord.

      If confess with our tongues that we believe yet we do not do what the Lord commands, we are no better than the goats who said, “Lord, Lord…”

      While we may speculate about whether the son who said, “I will,” confessed to be a believer or not, the result is that his actions proved he wasn’t regardless of what he believed or said he believed. I fear that is the state of a great many professed “Christians” in this country.

      The single best confession of faith is to make disciples, followed by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick or the prisoner, and so on:

      What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
      —James 2:14-26

      Abraham’s confession of faith was in his doing. Rahab’s confession of faith was in her actions. Even confessing Christ with one’s tongue is an action. They are inseparable.

      Vital faith is not merely having the right thoughts and doctrines. It must be lived. And it must do what the Lord commands.

      If we are not making disciples, not feeding the hungry, not giving up the self-serving lifestyle that enthrones ourselves and puts the King and Kingdom second, then we have no right to trust that we actually believe. We don’t believe because our actions prove we don’t.

      “By their fruits ye shall know them,” and those fruits are shown by what we do.

      Again, if our immediate families (and possibly even our churches) are the only people who know we are a Christian, then we probably aren’t.

      • If people were to follow us around for a week, believing that we must be doing the things the Lord told us to do, otherwise we are not really Christians…then they would conclude that we are not Christians.

        We do not love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not love our enemies. W are not perfect as Jesus commands us to be.

        The law (what we should, ought and must be doing) has to be seperated from faith.

        When people preach the law (for righteousness sake) they create self-righteous, despairing, or phoney people. It’s just the way it is.

        But when people preach faith in Christ (alone!) for righteousness sake…the Holy Spirit will grab hold of the person and good works will follow…although we will not be able to enumerate them.

        ‘By your fruits you will know them” Why does fruits always have to equate with works? Why can’t it mean just speaking of Christ? Can’t that be the good work that Christ is after?

        Thanks Dan!

        • Steve,

          That people might conclude we are not Christians if they followed us around for a week didn’t seem to be the issue with the early Church. In fact, the early Church, by the way they lived their faith before all men, startled the world with their differentness.

          In fact, your statement tells me that something is drastically wrong with what passes for today’s Church. We need to examine ourselves to see if we truly are in Christ or not. We may consider ourselves elect, but if we act as little more than worldly sons of disobedience, are we truly elect—or just deceiving ourselves?

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

          As Christianity spread, and the Church became more secularized, this realization of the costliness of grace gradually faded. The world was Christianized, and grace became its common property. It was to be had at low cost….

          I think that we can use grace as a means to excuse ourselves from doing the work the Lord commanded. This makes grace a cheap commodity. Too many people believe just that. That is my biggest point here.

          • Dan,

            I see you point and to a degree, I agree, but the point of seperation is on emphasis.

            When you emphasize works you get phonies or self-righteous (because non of us are up to it)

            When you emphasize grace and faith…you’ll get the works…but not by a goading of the law.

  2. Josh e.

    I actually agree with the idea that the confession of faith is in the believing, but I disagree that it is possible to believe and not do. The doing is the confession of believing! We aren’t confessing our believing to God though, since He knows us and knows what’s behind what we say; rather, we are confessing to the world.

    If someone can’t confess first to God through believing and secondly (and just as important) to the world through doing, there is much reason for doubting their Christianity.

    Great post.

  3. I like this parable, too. I think it also gets little respect. One day, though, I considered what may have happened in that time and culture that may not happen today. When the first son said, “I will not,” the father beat him with the ugly stick until he repented. “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15 KJV). Perhaps the second son saw his brother whipped. Then he said he would go.

    What do you suppose happened to the second son when the father found out? The first son’s beating would have looked preferable!

    And so it is with harlots and publicans. They get beaten with life’s ugly stick. They are more likely to go into the kingdom of heaven than the Pharisees, who say all the right things and get off of this world’s lauds and thanks, while not doing what they say they will do.

    • Michael,

      The reality of this is that Jesus doesn’t add what you added. The father didn’t come and beat the “bad” son. Though this may alienate some of my readers, the son who declined with his words changed his mind and did the work of his own free will. He was not compelled to do so. At least Jesus, who normally doesn’t miss such an opportunity to elaborate if it will make a deeply spiritual point, didn’t say he was compelled.

      And that’s key because God isn’t in the forcing business. He doesn’t force us to do the work. If He did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

      • francisco

        “the son who declined with his words changed his mind and did the work of his own free will.”

        You’re reading too much into the text, my friend. I could equally say that God changed the heart of the second brother between his first response and his doing so that by believing in Jesus he was enabled to do what he could not on his own ability.

        With all due respect, in that statement you are going beyond the point of the parable.

        • Francisco,

          Jesus didn’t say what you’re saying Francisco. He didn’t say that God changed the mind of the first son for him. Jesus said that the first son changed his own mind. Nor did Jesus say that God hardened the heart of the second son.

          It’s not really going beyond the parable because Jesus is also making an important point here along the lines of human choice. Both sons had a choice to choose or not to choose whether they would obey. From the way Jesus phrases it, He most clearly states that they chose their response. In this way, he also foretells the choice that He must make: to die on the cross or not.

          • francisco


            Yes, Jesus didn’t say what I said. But neither did he say: “the first son change his own mind and did the work out of his own free will.” My point was to state simply that this neither you nor I can use this text to resolve the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsability. We’d have to talk about other texts for that (but that’d be beyond the scope of this post). That was all what I was trying to say. I am not trying to twist Jesus’ words.

            Now, I believe Jesus’ point in this parable is: “who is the one who does God’s will?” I think you’d agree that it is one thing for one “to say one has faith” and quite another thing for one “to have faith”. I think that’s the difference between the two sons and the point James makes too. Those who have real faith will do the works that prove that such faith is real, works prepared beforehand for those who believe (Eph 2:8-10).

  4. I believe that Jesus made this clear in the very first part of John 15 when he said, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He (the Father) takes away.”

    When you look at the people in the pews of many churches in America, you’ll see those who’ve “confessed with their mouth” but are nothing more than pew sitters. They don’t DO anything.

    Jesus used the analogy of producing fruit, 30, 60, 100 fold, in other places too and don’t you think that he meant for that to impel us to action?

    He also said, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” And going and doing were those things that He commanded me – so I go and I do. I want to be His friend.

    Good post Dan. It strikes a cord.

  5. It seems that to be a Christian in America, all one has to do is accept Jesus as Lord, (in your mind-believe), ask Him into your heart (feeling good about the belief), go to a large, or trendy, or relevant church, (doing your duty), and hating the right sins (abortion, homosexuality, etc.)

    There seems to be a serious lack of emphasis on what the Bible actually says and that is to do, do , do, and do some more. Faith is the key. Belief gets us in the door. But to advance the Kingdom we have to do something. And like the parable you used Dan, it is not about saying we will but it is about the actual completion of action.

    For so very many in the church it seems that the only thing they must “do is attend church. How very sad this must make our Lord?

    Thanks Dan

    Love you all

  6. ‘Doing, doing, doing, doing’.

    This is the problem with the Church today.

    It is a law project. It is all about ‘you’, and whether you are doing enough.

    Well, I’ve got news for you…the answer is ‘no’. You are never doing enough.

    Jesus said, “I give you rest.” “My yoke is easy.”

    For the ‘doing’ crowd, faith in Christ is never enough. One might as well become a Jew, or a Mormon. All the steps are laid out there.

    I have found that with the ‘doing’ crowd, they are usually focused on ‘your doing’ (since they are doing alright already).

    Yes, the doing language is in the Bible. It is called the law…and it must be kept perfectly.

    How are you ‘doing’?

    • brian

      If you approach two people at church, after all the singing and praising, and amenning, and told them: Jesus has work for you, to help the poor this week. One person signed up to volunteer at a soup kitchen, the other thought about, decided it was a good idea, and did a study about serving the poor. Which one believed that Jesus was serious?

      Here’s the difference between the two sons in the parable: One believed and obeyed, the other didnt. If obedience is the natural sequela of faith, then can’t you tell the faithless by their inaction?

  7. Thanks Dan. I had just finished reading that passage in James and praying about some things, some decisions I need to make and actions I need to take, but struggling with. Your post, once again, was timely. Convicting, but confirming.

  8. Getting There

    Dan, good post, I get what you are saying! In the same sentence though.. one can’t do unless they have Christ within them..

    WE must also remember the the spirit is at war with the flesh. while we are encouraged to do the will of God, the flesh is right there waging a war against us. I love the book of romans because it explains it so clearly. You are speaking a great truth hear however that we do have to be ‘doers’ of the word But the question rises.. what it is that we must do..

    the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself.. focus on this and the rest will follow… it is better to be cleansed on the inside.. the heart.. It really boils down to the heart and this is not external.. a person can seem so righteous in the eyes of man but his heart can be full of deciet. He may seem to be doing the will of the father but he is running maybe after his own benefit…

    The focus should be on love.. Perfect love casts out fear! That grace in Christ draws us to do the will of God.. it’s a natural desire to do what God wants us to do in the spirit. Yet we are still waging a war with the flesh… so this is where love comes in.. The question I believe we should ask ourselves is, do I really love? Can I really forgive? Do i have the fruits of the spirit? am I humble? When I look in the mirror, what do I see? Do I see myself in Christ or do I see myself striving to please God in my own strength? This goes far deeper.. But I totally get what you are saying here Dan.

  9. Dan,
    Thanks for the kick in the pants. I need it.

    Some of the comments remind me of why this quote is so spot on.

    “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.†¨-Soren Kierkegaard

    Merry Christmas Brother.

  10. Elizabeth Anne

    A Catholic friend of mine has pointed out on several occasions that the only time the words “sola fide” occur in the Bible, the word “non” was in front of it.

  11. I think where we get hung up on the idea of works somehow saving us is by thinking that they are our works … and they’re not. Once we believe, we become a temple where the Holy Spirit dwells and instruments through which God works.

    Salvation is the GraceFaithWorks Sandwich. Not an event, but a process. Not a single moment, but a lifetime in His service.

  12. Brian

    Entertain me in a little thinking out loud here.

    I probably had a very typical salvation experience. I was 17, was heavily into drugs. Speed was my drug of choice. I had been arrested for various crimes. I obviously wasn’t doing well in school.

    Then I got saved.

    After that, the people I ran with I needed to get away from. I needed to get grounded in this new life I had. I was encouraged to do so. The church and christians became my focus.

    I was on fire and I tried in my own clunky, awkward, force-a-square-peg-in-a-round-hole type of way to witness to people. I had little success.

    I ventured out and attended many churches in my area. Not that I was church hunting, I was church visiting. I made friends all over the place. It was nice, gave me a lot of experience.

    I was a voracious consumer of the word and diligent in prayer. I evolved through several circumstances from a Calvary Chapel where I got saved to a start-up home church based on Toronto Blessing experience. This was a hyper version of the culture I had found myself in and thought normal after I was saved. I knew no better from my childhood (when I was saved). It was ingrown and self focused. And the teaching always encouraged that.

    Throughout this time I had always thought that God would pull me into full time ministry. When you are deeply embedded in Christian culture this is the model you see and believe is the only real way to step over from pew sitter to preacher of the word.

    When I began to realize, among many other things, that this wasn’t going to happen (at least when I thought it should) I became very disheartened by my Christian/Church experience.

    I gave up hope that being some full-time minister was what I would be doing. The problem was there was no real strong model of what it meant to be a full-time minister of the gospel outside of the pulpit.

    There were those Christians that would witness to their friends and always be bringing folks to church. But they were few and far between. And they only seemed to bring the people to the preacher and leave them there.

    I think there are a lot of people that can relate to some of these experiences I’ve just described. Perhaps not. But in this history of mine, I think we can all see and imagine a lot of the problems with how the Church is working now. There are subtle messages and undercurrents that create in my story that we all know contribute to the situatiuon. As Dan said before, fig tree with no fruit.

    For the first majority of the 18 years I have been with the Lord I have been the brother that said yes I will and didn’t do. For the last part of my life with Him I have been the brother that said no. But I am looking working through to the place where I do.

    The Church is getting shaken up now. Things are changing. What we have been getting is no longer working for many of us. We want to dig down deep and build our house on the rock. We want to be solid and firm in his ways and word. I’m digging. Oh Lord I hope I’m digging. I sincerely want to be found working the vineyard when the Master returns. But right now I’m looking at hoes and shovels, vines and grapes and wonder what the heck am I suppose to do with these?

    • Brian-

      I appreciate you sharing your heart and thoughts. I have found in my own walk that figuring out what God wants me doing in the vineyard is the hardest part. What has worked for me is to studying the Word (not just read). I found the answers by learning about His spirtual gifts, His heart, His commission. Then asking Him to teach me about myself. He has shown me the spirtual gifts He gave me, what my passions are, what responsibilities I have as a Christain woman, and so much more.

      I say this to demonstrate how He has worked in teaching me my job in the vineyard. I have been given the spirtual gift of teaching, my passion is working with adults, my commission is from Titus 2 “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” SO, I teach the Bible to women and teach younger woman how to love their husband and children.

      I pray you will find your gift, passion, and commission that only He can give you. God bless!

  13. George

    I agree with Dan’s post, and with many of the commenters, wholeheartedly.

    Perhaps a problem is that the meaning of belief (and faith) has throughout our generation been assumed to be a mental activity. Perhaps the definition is not an intellectual acceptance but a matter of living as if Jesus’ message is true.

    Doing is the faith, as Abraham did.

    Not doing is the law.

  14. Dan-
    I’m newer to reading this blog. I enjoyed this topic and the comments that have followed.

    In reading some of the comments I wonder if there may have been a miscommunication. I agree that our salvation is by Grace alone. There is nothing i can do to earn the Grace of God, not before or after salvation. It is all about what He does and nothing with what Cheryl does. HOWEVER, the result of salvation is a changed life that bears fruit. All the scriptures that Dan qouted can not be ignored in the name of the “law”. There is a standard of living that God calls us to as His children. Will we always live up to it? – no. But we can not so lightly brush it under the rug, because we are under Grace. This is the danger in the church I believe Dan is talking about. It is also warned about in Romans.

    One of my favorite Bible Study teachers is Kay Arthur from Precepts ministry and she says, “God is not who WE belive He is. He is who the WHOLE Bible says He is.”

    Have a Merry Christmas.

  15. Caroline

    we are who we are. The sum of what we say and do are inseparable. We say what we do. We do what we say because we say what we mean and mean what we say.

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