This gospel story has a modern ring to it. “Kids, go clean up your rooms.” “Yes, Mum.” Then as usually happens, some do it, and some don’t. So which ones are doing the will of their Mother? It’s what we call a no-brainer.
Jesus had a similar approach with his parables. They engaged his listeners to identify with one person or group, by setting up a contrast with another person or group. And that was the teaching device that Jesus used, to catch them with a common daily situation, and taking them to a deeper spiritual level of awareness.
We have an old adage which says, “actions speak louder than words.” All the priests and the elders recognised and acknowledged immediately that the son in the parable who responded with action was the one who fulfilled the will of his father. The one who verbally responded but did not follow that up with deeds, was obviously disrespectful and disobedient.
Imagine what the priests and the elders thought when Jesus showed how they had accused themselves with their own answer. They had listened to John the Baptist, who was sent by their Father in heaven, but they did not respond to his urgent message. On the other hand, prostitutes and tax collectors— considered sinners and social outcasts—also listened to the words of John the Baptist, and had a spiritual conversion. These outcasts repented and renewed their efforts to become obedient to God’s word and to mend their relationship with God.
When faced with truth (just like some modern politicians), the only response of those with hardened hearts to Jesus’ message was to plan ways to demonize him. Their blindness would eventually lead them to plot his death.
Words are not enough; to gain entrance into the kingdom of God; It’s good deeds that are needed. The gospel stories always demand a response from anyone who hears them; we must be obedient to the gospel.