A Parable of Two Sons

By: Rev. Sam Harris; ©2001
Rev. Sam Harris explains how the parable of the two sons found in Matthew 21:28-32 relates to us and to our relationship with God.

A Parable of Two Sons


Would you please explain Matthew 21:28-32, the parable of the two sons. I am having a difficult time understanding what it means and how it applies to today. Thank you.


This is the first of three parables in which Jesus rebukes the Jewish leaders (Matthew 21:28-32; 33-46; and 22:1-14). The bottom line is: “you can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk.” Let’s look at this passage more closely.

In this parable, a father asked his two sons to go and work in his field. One said that he would but didn’t; the second said that he wouldn’t but eventually did.

The first son compared to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who gave appearances of saying yes to God, but they were disobedient and their hearts were estranged from God. The second son started out saying no but eventually repented and became obedient and did what he was told to do—they were the tax collectors and harlots who, at first, went their own way, but then repented and took God’s way.

Neither of the two sons were the kind that would bring joy to a father’s heart. The one son who obeyed in the end was far better than the other son who simply gave “lip service.” The ideal son would be the one who, without question, accepted the father’s orders and cheerfully carried them out.

What does this parable say to us today? Obviously, Jesus is dealing with two groups of people who exist even today. There are those whose profession is much better than their practice. They may say all of the right words and even make promises, but their practice does not reflect their profession; in contemporary language, they are all “bark” and no “bite.”

There are those people whose practice is far better than their profession. They often look and sound tough on the outside, but we might discover that they are performing kind and generous things, as if almost in secret—as if they are ashamed of what they are doing. They may profess to have no interest in the church or religion, yet when it comes to it, they seem to be living more Christian lives than many professing Christians. You and I probably know people like that and may have even reflected that in our own lives at times. (Please remember: good works, by themselves, will not get you into heaven.)

The real point of the parable is this: while the second group might be preferred over the first group, neither group is anything like perfect. The really good person is the one whose practice matches his profession and vice versa.

Please also understand that promises can never take the place of performance. “Feel­ing someone’s pain” is not the same as doing something about it. The ideal: if you are doing to “talk the talk, you had better “walk the walk.” James said it best: “But prove your­selves to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). James also stated that “faith without works is dead” (James 3:17).

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