It is often advisable to admit you do not know the answer rather than bluff your way through it. It shows a lack of integrity. But it is not a good idea to pretend you do not know the answer when everyone knows you do. It also shows a lack of integrity.
The chief priests know the answer they believe to be true. Do they accept John’s authority came from heaven? They do not see their answer for or against benefits them in any way. So, they try a third option that they should have considered a little longer. (Matthew 21:23-32)
Jesus begins this parable saying, “A man had two children.” Most translations say two sons. Considering the chief priests are male, it makes sense. Yet, prostitutes are mentioned too. The lesson is important for many reasons.
The Integrity of Righteousness
Jesus says here that John came offering the way of righteousness. When Jesus asks John to baptize him it is “to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus did not need baptism for repentance. Yet, it was right to obey God’s call. He accepted John’s authority was from heaven. Righteousness is defined as “right conduct in accordance with God’s will.”
The parable has the first child being righteous in this sense. Even though he at first refuses to go, he changes his mind and does what he was told. The tax collectors and prostitutes who obeyed John’s call to repentance were these children.
The second child is the one who sounds righteous. He says the right thing and does the opposite. The chief priests and the elders fall into this category. They are the same as the scribes and pharisees Jesus describes in chapter 23:2-3. “’The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.’” In other words, the people are to do what is read in the Law of Moses. When these teachers stand up from Moses’ seat, you should not follow them after that point.
Change Your Mind
Some translations say the first child repented and did what his father asked. The NRSV uses the phrase “changed his mind.” The story is meant to reflect everyday life. We all remember moments in our lives we wish we had handled differently. The fallout from our actions makes us wish something had been done better. A lot of times greater harm came from the wrong action. There is not any consequence spoken of for the second son. But the first son had a consequence that was within his own conscience.
The first child cannot take back his refusal. But he can repair some of the damage by going out to work in the vineyard. The second child is rightly described as disobedient. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The second one did not. But his disobedience is more difficult to overcome. That is because he lacks integrity.
It is very difficult to overcome one’s lack of integrity because it is nearly impossible to recognize. The chief priests and elders did not recognize John’s authority because it called their own into question. It is hard to miss someone’s meaning when he calls you and people like you a “brood of vipers.” Jesus says they could not recognize their own lack of integrity after seeing the tax collectors and prostitutes believe and obey John’s call, they did not change their minds and believe him. Even when they could have done something about their mistake, they refused to do it.
Have you have ever told someone who is not arguing with you, “Just admit you are wrong?” Have you ever wanted to step in and say it? Most of the time, I wanted to do that and didn’t. The problem is a person lacking integrity will double-down on their defense. The chief priests, elders, scribes, and Pharisees are not often convinced by what Jesus says. It is a shame.
Having integrity requires a basic honesty within oneself. Just as the Proverbs say wisdom requires effort, honesty does too. We should clarify something here. Some people believe being honest means speaking the unvarnished truth. Rather, it is accepting truth for yourself. The fifteenth Psalm gives a description of the person with integrity before God. The psalm ends with the phrase, “Those who do these things shall never be moved.”
Our integrity before God means we do not seek our own good first and foremost. We seek the same good for ourselves for everyone. That is not easy to do. But we know if everyone did what the worst people among us do, life would be miserable. It is difficult to see who the worst among us are.
The chief priests and elders made careers saying just the right things to the right people. With just one question, Jesus got them to see into their own hearts and how they trapped themselves thinking they could trap Jesus. When Jesus says the outward appearance of righteousness was to receive praise from people, he says they have sold their integrity for a paltry reward. It could be called their thirty pieces of silver.