According to the Synoptic Gospels the voiceprint of Jesus was characterized by the aphorism and the short narrative. The synoptic evangelists dubbed these short narratives "parables" because they found them enigmatic; that is to say they could not easily get a religious meaning out of them by reading them as the fictional stories they were. Hence they assumed that the stories were, for the most part, figurative1 and that enabled the evangelists to get a religious meaning from them that suited their own idiosyncratic theology. There is a residue of only 43 short narratives preserved in early Christian literature attributed to Jesus.2
One of the shortest and least studied of these brief narratives, titled by its first line, is "A Father's Two Children." A synopsis of the story is as follows: the narrative depicts the different responses of two children to their father's instructions to go and work in the family vineyard (Matt 21:28b-30). The general subject of the story is obedience/respect, as Matthew rightly understood (21:31). It is an enigmatic story and two versions of it exist among the various manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel.
Here are translations of the two versions of the story excluding the literary context (21:31-32), which in my view constitutes the evangelist's interpretive strategy. Version one:
A man had two children [tekna,3 not uios], and coming to the first he said "child, go today; work in the vineyard." But answering s/he said, "I don't want to." Later, however, having second thoughts, s/he went. And coming to the other, he said the same. Answering s/he said "I am [going],4 Sir; yet s/he did not go.
A man had two children [tekna,3 not uios], and coming to the first he said, "child, go today; work in the vineyard." Answering s/he said "I am [going], Sir; yet s/he did not go. And coming to the other, he said the same. But answering s/he said, "I don't want to." Later, however, having second thoughts, s/he went.
The answers of the children are reversed in version one and version two.
Basically the story compares and contrasts the responses of the children and by that contrast invites the reader's judgment on their responses, particularly in view of the fact that the story has no conclusion. The lack of a conclusion seems to be the design of Jesus' stories5 and makes Matthew's introduction to the narrative ("What do you think, 21:28?") plausible as an introduction to the story.
Matthew's interpretation (21:30-32) describes the conflict between the chief priests and elders of the people (Matt 21:23), the antecedents of "they" in Matt 21:31. Their response to Jesus' question in Matt 21:31 ("the first") only works with the first version of the story, where the youth later did as instructed; in the manuscripts several answers are given by Jesus' interlocutors—the last, the second, the latter, depending on the sequence of the children's answer and actions. These answers do not work with the version chosen by text critics to whom we owe the credit for the version that generally appears in your translation.6
Would you attach a religious meaning to the story? If you would, why would you do so?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Some stories they read as examples such as An Injured Man on the Jericho Road (Luke 10:30-35).
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 121. That is not to say that Jesus originated all of the stories. See Meier, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale: 2016).
3Teknon is a Greek neuter noun which is translated by the English "Child" with no emphasis on gender. Uios is a masculine noun and is translated "son." In Luke (2:48, 15:31), however, uses the term child as an affectionate parental title for a son. Interestingly the only way that the reader knows that the parent is male is by the use of the Greek kurie, "Sir," which is vocative of address for the masculine noun kurios.
4A later manuscript adds after "I am" (egō) the Greek upagō (going). For the use of the Greek egō alone to mean "I am going" see Judges 13:11 LXX.
5See for example the analysis of The Unjust Judge and The Pharisee and Toll Collector in Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions (Hendrickson, 1994), 187-235.
6See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (UBS, 4th ed., 2000), 44-46.