Spiritual Meaning of

Bible Meanings Back to Parables index




Matt. 21:28-32.

A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward 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 those two did the will of his father? They say to him, The first. Jesus says to them, Verily I say to you, that the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you believed him not: but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him: and you, when you had seen it, repented not afterward, that you might believe him.

In the original, it is said, a man had two sons, the word certain being added by the translators; and by the term man is here meant, the Lord in His Divine Humanity, who is, properly, the Only Man, whilst all other men are men by derivation from Him, or in consequence of the life which He continually imparts. By the two sons, therefore, of this man, are figured and represented two distinct classes of people, comprehending the whole human race; one of which classes, as it afterwards appears, is principled in an obedient will, but not so much in an enlightened understanding, whilst the other is in possession of an enlightened understanding, but is deficient in the point of obedience, or of a submissive will.

It is written of the above man and his two sons, that He came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard.

Two distinct expressions are here employed to denote the two distinct principles of the divine love and the divine wisdom; the former of which is involved in the term came, whilst the latter is involved in the term said. Thus the two terms combined denote the marriage-union of those two divine principles, and inculcate, further, the edifying lesson, that before the Almighty can address man to advantage with His divine wisdom, He must first come, and move man's affections by the presence of His divine love; in other words, man must begin to regard an eternal end, before he can be qualified to understand the eternal truth.

By the vineyard is spiritually understood the Lord's Church here on earth, agreeably to what is written in the Prophet, The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel (Isaiah 5:7). And the Church is a vineyard in consequence of cherishing the principles of heavenly truth from Jesus Christ, who, as being the divine fountain of truth, calls Himself the true vine (John xv). To go, then, and work in this vineyard, is the important duty binding on all the children of men, as implying a life in conformity to the truth, signified by the term go, and also co-operation with Jesus Christ in opposing those affections, appetites, and passions, which are contrary to the truth, signified by the term work. It is said today, because by today, according to the spiritual idea, is meant, to eternity, and, therefore, the expression is used in order to instruct mankind, that they ought for ever to cherish in their minds the principles of heavenly life, by combating all contrary principles, and thus rendering themselves receptive, to all eternity, of the divine love and the divine wisdom.

The reply and consequent conduct of the first son involve in them two distinct considerations; first, that the understanding of this son was not in agreement with his father's requirement, which disagreement is marked by his saying, I will not; for saying has reference to the thought or understanding-: and, secondly, that the will of this son was not opposed to the father's command, on which account it is said, that afterwards he repented and went. By this son, therefore, as was above hinted, are represented and described all those of the human race, who externally, or in thought, oppose divine counsels, but who yet inwardly, or in affection, do not oppose; thus by this son are represented and described specifically the Gentiles, who are not in possession of the Word of revelation, and who, consequently, cherish thoughts, ideas, and persuasions, which are not in agreement with that Word, but who, yet, notwithstanding this disagreement in their intellect, are still, by reason of their simplicity and sincerity, disposed to admit the Eternal Truth for the rule and government of their lives.

The reply and consequent conduct of the second son involve in them the true state of his mind, which was such, as to enable him to discern clearly what his duty was, and how he ought to comply with his father's will, whilst, at the same time, his own will was inclined to act contrary to his father's, and also to oppose his own sense of duty and obligation. Thus, this second son is a representative figure of all those of the human race, whose understandings are enlightened to see what line of conduct is good and right for them to pursue, but whose inclinations lead them in a contrary direction, in consequence of being opposed to all the dictates of truth and equity. He is more specifically a representative figure of the Jewish nation, who, being in possession of the eternal truth, as made known in the Word of revelation, and having their understandings thus enlightened with the knowledge of God, and of His Holy Laws, were yet disinclined, in will, to conform to that knowledge, and to obey those laws. As, therefore, the first son specifically represented the Gentiles, so the second son specifically represented the Jews.

In the question, Whether of those two did the will of his father? the Blessed Jesus makes an appeal to the common sense- and reason of mankind, under the full assurance, that the answer would be such as is here recorded, where it is written, They say to Him, the first. Thus the Blessed Jesus would instruct us that the common sense and reason of mankind, if they were fairly consulted, would favour the great design of religion, which means nothing else but to call man to the discharge of the important duties which he owes to his Heavenly Father, because common sense and reason must see the miserable infatuation of all those, who profess one thing with their lips, whilst in their hearts they pursue another, or, what amounts to the same, who have their understandings enlightened with the knowledge of truth, whilst their wills are defiled and misled by the love of evil.

In the concluding application of the parable the Blessed Jesus confirms the observation above made, that by the first son, there mentioned, are to be understood the Gentiles, or those who have not formed their understandings in agreement with the Eternal Truth; and that by the second son are to be understood the Jews, or those who were in possession of the Holy Word, and were thus acquainted with the laws and precepts of the divine wisdom. For, by the tax collectors and harlots, are manifestly meant the Gentiles, and the term you, with equal clearness, designates the Jews. In the above words, therefore, the Blessed Jesus evidently teaches the important lesson, that they who are principled in simplicity and sincerity of will; in other words, who are disposed to do the whole of their duty uprightly, and in the fear of God, although the knowledge of that duty is very incorrect, are better qualified to admit the Eternal Truth, than those who are acquainted, intellectually, with the measures of their duty, and yet, in heart and affection, are not inclined to perform it. Accordingly, he declares, that the former go into the kingdom of God before the latter; because, by going into the kingdom of God, the same thing is meant as receiving the Eternal Truth, inasmuch as the reception of the Eternal Truth opens and forms in man the kingdom of God, and, consequently, man goes into the kingdom of God so far as he admits the Eternal Truth to enlighten his understanding, and regulate his love and life.

Jesus Christ, therefore, adds, John came to you in the way of righteousness, because, by John is represented the Holy Word, or the Eternal Truth; and by his coming in the way of righteousness, is described the presence and influence of that Word in the human mind, and also the principles which constitute it, namely, the principles of wisdom and of love; for, by the way of righteousness, or, as it might be more properly expressed, the way of justice, both those principles are intended to be expressed, inasmuch as the term way, when applied in the Sacred Scriptures, has perpetual reference to truth, or doctrine, as righteousness, or justice, has reference equally constant to the principles of love and charity. When, therefore, Jesus Christ tells the Jews that they believed him not, that is to say, believed not John, it is the same thing as if He had said, that they received not the Eternal Truth; and when He adds, that the tax collectors and harlots believed him, it is again the same thing as if He had said, that they, who are signified by tax collectors and harlots, received the Eternal Truth. Lastly, when he concludes in these words. And you, when you had seen [it], repented not afterwards that you might believe. He teaches the additional important lesson, that they who are principled in the knowledge of the truth, but are not obedient to its dictates, finally reject the truth, because they are unwilling to renounce these evils which the truth makes manifest, or, as it is here expressed, They repent not that they might believe. It is said, when you had seen [it], and it is next said, You repented not afterwards that you might believe, plainly teaching that there is an essential difference between seeing the truth and believing it, and that there can be no proper belief, only so far as there is a desire to forsake sin, or to repent. For it is possible that truth may be seen by the understanding, to be truth, when yet the will, or love, is not affected by it, but it cannot be believed in, until the will, or love, becomes so affected as to be led to reject all evil as sin against God, thus to repent.

We therefore learn from this parable, that all the families of mankind may be referred to two classes; one consisting of those who, in understanding, are acquainted with their duty, but who, in their wills, are not so well-disposed to practise it; and the other, consisting of those who are inclined to do their duty, but who are not so well instructed in the particulars which that duty requires. We learn, further, that each of these classes of mankind are called, by their Heavenly Father, to work today in his vineyard; in other words, to cherish eternally, in their minds and lives, all the principles of heaven-born truth, that so they may bring forth to all eternity the blessed fruits of heaven-born love and charity. Lastly, we learn, that they who have the light of knowledge in their understandings, but not the love of that light in their wills, make fair professions of obedience to the above call, whilst, in reality, they are disobedient, because they do not allow the light to remove their natural evils, and conduct them thus, in the way of repentance, to a state of purification and regeneration; and that, on the other hand, they who are well-disposed in will, but not so much enlightened in understanding, although they make no professions of obedience, are still obedient, because they suffer the little truth with which they are acquainted to control their natural evils, and bring their lives under the regulations of heavenly order.

Let us now ponder well on the distinct characters of these two classes of people, until we see clearly that sincere obedience to the divine law, though attended with little knowledge of its particular requirements, is infinitely preferable to much knowledge, if unattended with love and practice. Let us further consider seriously, that our Heavenly Father is continually saying to us, as he says to his two sons in the parable, Son, go work today in my vineyard, and that our eternal happiness will depend on our obedience to the call, because our eternal happiness must of necessity depend on the measure and degree in which we admit and cherish in our mind and life the blessed principles of heaven-born love and wisdom. Lastly, through the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father, let us repent sincerely of all our sins, that so we may no longer be like the proud Pharisees of old, who were acquainted with the law of salvation, and yet were disobedient to that law; but may rather be of the blessed character of those of whom it is written. They enter into the kingdom of God before you. Amen.