“What good is It, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? (James 2:14)

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32)


I never understood this story. I couldn’t figure out which son really made his father happy. One says ‘no’ to his father’s instructions and then goes and carries them out. The other says ‘yes’ and doesn’t do them. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?

I thought it was a trick question. Jesus was answering the objections of the Pharisees – Israel’s self-righteous, religious muckety-mucks. I knew by now that Jesus didn’t like these guys much because their idea of righteousness was screwed up and, as Israel’s leaders, they tended to screw up the righteousness of others. So I just figured that whatever question Jesus asked, these guys were going to get it wrong.

At least that’s what I figured.

Son #1 said ‘no’ and did what his father asked anyway. Son #2 said ‘yes’ and didn’t do what his father asked. Jesus’ question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?

Pharisee answer: “Son #1.”

Jesus’ rebuttal: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

So apparently, the Pharisees didn’t get the question right. They said Son #1. Jesus said that they were losers. So Son #1 must be the wrong answer … right?

I’ve been thinking about this particular story for a long time. I’ll bet this thing’s been on my mind for a good twenty years – maybe more. I just didn’t get it. The story didn’t sound right. Son #1 is disobedient and disrespectful to his father’s face. But then he does what he’s asked. Son #2 is agreeable and respectful while he’s in front of his father, but never does what he’s asked. And one of those two did the right thing.

This whole time I assumed that Son #2 was the good son. But still, it just didn’t seem right to me – how could you be the good son and not do what your father asked you to do? Is lip service really all you need to get by?

Like I said, I’ve been chewing on this one for a long time. Last week I really wanted to get down to the bottom of what this story was about -what’s the lesson to be learned here?

Learning from the Word of God is different than learning from any other book. Learning from a book is primarily a cerebral activity. You use your brain. The guys who study that stuff call it ‘cognitivism.’ We just call it ‘book learning.’

That’s how a lot of folks approach the Bible – more ‘book learning.’ But those who approach it like any other book tend to miss the point – just like the Pharisees. Paul told the church in Corinth, “This is what we speak, not in words taught to us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” (I Corinthians 2:13)

You can’t get the Word of God with just your brain – your own intellect – it’s impossible. Paul went on to explain, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:14)

Dummy me. I had been trying to figure out this story for all these years. I couldn’t see the lesson because I was trying to see it with my brain and not His Spirit …duh. My own thickness amazes me at times.

So I asked Him, “What does the story mean?” I asked to see it through the eyes of His Spirit. Then it occurred to me that a lot of Bible scholars may have already read this story from His perspective and may have an opinion as to its meaning. Then I started doing my homework.

According to every source I checked it was Son #1 who did the right thing in the end and Son #2 who didn’t. There wasn’t any trick question or hidden answer. The lesson was pretty simple; it was me who was trying to out think the story.

Son #1 says ‘no’ to his father, but later repents and goes out to do his father’s will. Son #2 says ‘yes’ but never puts any action to his words.

The tax collectors and prostitutes (a paraphrase calls them ‘crooks and whores’ – why sugar coat it?) were like Son #1. They rejected God’s will all their lives, but when John the Baptist pointed out their sin, they accepted his words and repented. In the end, they did the will of their Father.

The Pharisees were like Son #2. They paid lip service; “yes, father.” “You bet father.” Sweet and smiley to His face, but with no intention of ever actually doing what He asked.

Finally – I got it. I know what Jesus was trying to tell those guys with his story. My Father isn’t interested in lip service; He wants me to do what He has asked me to do. I prove my obedience in the doing, not in the talking.

The lesson? Let my actions do my talking for me. One act goes further in doing His will than all the good intentions in the world.


But is doing really that critical? The Bible says we’re saved by grace, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9) It also says that whoever believes in Jesus “shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).

If we’re saved by grace and not by works and all that’s required for eternal life is believing, why am I so hung up doing? Am I trying to earn something that’s already been given to me as a free gift?

Not at all. Read on pilgrim.

Right after Paul says we’re saved by grace he says we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10).

And right after Jesus told Nicodemus that “whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” He explained that believing in him meant “com[ing] into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

Believing is demonstrated by doing. Obeying is demonstrated by doing. Faith is demonstrated by doing. It’s our response to God’s free gift. It’s our accepting of it. If we believe in the light, we walk into the light. Faith isn’t an idea we hold in our head and it’s not spiritual lip service. It’s action.

Our doing is the only part we can play in this relationship. God has already created us and made each of us with an integral role in His eternal plan. He has already sacrificed his Son to pay the price of our redemption. He has done everything that we were incapable of doing.

The only thing left for us to do is to believe. The only thing that makes our belief real is our response. And the only response required of us is that we do what He’s asked us to do.

In the end, Son #1 did what his father wanted. That’s all that’s required. I can’t believe it’s taken me twenty years to figure that out.

In His Service,

Steve Spillman