Mat 21:28 But what think you? A certain man had two sons: and coming to the first, he said: Son, go work to day in my vineyard.
But what think you? Christ, by the following parable, convicted the Scribes and Pharisees—who said that they knew not whether the baptism of John were from heaven or of men—of the utmost dishonesty and obstinacy; because, although they wished to be accounted sons of God, yet refused to receive John who was sent by God, and would not believe His preaching, nor do penance. Moreover, Christ in this place, says S. Chrysostom, brings in guilty the judges themselves, with a great confidence in justice, where the cause is entrusted to the adversary. But He employs a parable, that they may not perceive how they are pronouncing sentence against themselves: “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to-day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not; but afterwards he repented and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir; and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto Him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.” (Verses 28-32.)
Mat 21:29 And he answering, said: I will not. But afterwards, being moved with repentance, he went.
Mat 21:30 And coming to the other, he said in like manner. And he answering said: I go, Sir. And he went not.
This parable scarcely needs an explanation, because Christ applies and explains it. In truth, the first—being at the beginning unwilling to obey his father, but afterwards repenting and obeying, by going to work in the vineyard—denotes the publicans and harlots; who at first by their sins repelled the will and law of God, but afterwards by John’s preaching came to a better mind, and did penance, and lived chastely and justly, according to the law of God. The second son—who said to his father that he would go into the vineyard, but broke his word, and went not—denotes the Scribes and Pharisees; who always had the law of God in their mouths (as though they were most zealous and religious observers of it), but did not fulfil it in their deeds, but by lust, rapine, and usury acted contrary to it. Wherefore they provoked the heavy displeasure and anger of God against them, as well on account of their wickedness itself as because of their hypocrisy and feigned observance of the Law. For such hypocrisy and duplicity grievously provokes God.
Mat 21:31 Which of the two did the father’s will? They say to him: The first. Jesus saith to them: Amen I say to you that the publicans and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you.
Go into the kingdom of God before you—Greek, προάγουσιν, in the present tense; future in Vulg. Meaning as follows: “The publicans and harlots precede you, 0 ye Scribes, i.e., they go before you in the way of God and of virtue, and advance to Heaven by the pattern of faith, repentance, and change of life; and therefore they will indeed precede and go before you into the kingdom of Heaven, into which ye wicked ones will never enter, although ye might enter if ye would repent and change your lives. Thus (Mat_5:19) the least in the kingdom of Heaven are the impious and the reprobate, who shall be shut out of it.
Mat 21:32 For John came to you in the way of justice: and you did not believe him. But the publicans and the harlots believed him: but you, seeing it, did not even afterwards repent, that you might believe him.
In the way of justice; the Syriac is, walking in the way of rectitude—i.e., leading a life perfectly just, right, holy and blameless.
Did not even afterwards repent—i.e., did not do penance. The Greek is ου̉ μετεμελήθητε, did not repent and amend.
Mystically: Publicans and harlots denote the Gentiles, who at first were slaves to idols and vices, and afterwards were converted by the preaching of the Apostles, and served God and virtue. The Pharisees and Scribes denote the Jews, who seemed to worship God, but really despised Him, since they despised Christ who was sent by Him, and hardened their hearts in this perfidy. Whence S. Jerome, S. Chrysostom, Origen, S. Athanasius, Bede, Euthymius, Maldonatus, Jansen, and others, passim, interpret the parable of them.
Tropologically: Christ shows, says S. Chrysostom, that the populace and plebeians, who some time or other are converted, are better than priests who are never converted.
Tropologically: Ordinary Christians and lay people who, from a desire of holiness, keep evangelical counsels, although they are not bound to them by vow or profession, are like the first son. Priests, monks, and religious, who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and afterwards break them, are like the second son.