21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 21:29 The boy answered, ‘I will not.’ But later he had a change of heart and went. 21:30 The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go. 21:31 Which of the two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of you into the kingdom of God! 21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Although you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.” — NET Bible
Matthew 21:29-31 involves a rather complex textual problem. The variants cluster into three different groups: (1) The first son says “no” and later has a change of heart, and the second son says “yes” but does not go. The second son is called the one who does his father’s will! This reading is found in the Western manuscripts. But the reading is so hard as to be next to impossible. One can only suspect some tampering with the text (e.g., that the Pharisees would indeed give lip-service to obedience and would betray themselves in their very response) or extreme carelessness on the part of the scribe. (Either option, of course, is not improbable with this particular texttype, and with codex D in particular.) The other two major variants are more difficult to assess. Essentially, the responses are sensical (the son who does his father’s will is the one who changes his mind after saying “no”: (2) The first son says “no” and later has a change of heart, and the second son says “yes” but does does not go. But here, the first son is called the one who does his father’s will (unlike the Western reading). This is the reading found in C* L W D Byz and many itala and Syriac witnesses. (3) The first son says “yes” but does not go, and the second son says “no” but later has a change of heart. This is the reading found in B Q f13 700 and several versional witnesses.
Both of these latter two readings make good sense and have significantly better textual support than the first reading. The real question, then, is: Is the first son or the second the obedient one? If we were to argue simply from the parabolic logic, we would tend to see the second son as the obedient one (hence, the third reading). The first son would represent the Pharisees (or Jews) who claim to obey God, but do not (cf. Matt 23:3). This comports well with the parable of the prodigal son (in which the oldest son represents the unbelieving Jews). Further, the chronological sequence of the second son being obedient fits well with the real scene: Gentiles and tax collectors and prostitutes are not, collectively, God’s chosen people, but they do repent and come to God, while the Jewish leaders claimed to be obedient to God but did nothing. At the same time, the external evidence is weaker for this reading (though stronger than the first reading), not as widespread, and certainly doubtful because of how neatly it fits. One suspects scribal manipulation at this point. (One might even conjecture that the Western reading originated from some attempt to smooth things out, but the scribe got confused along the way and created a worse blunder, just as several Georgian witnesses seemed to do.) Thus, the second reading looks to be superior to the other two on both external and transcriptional grounds.
When one comes to the interpretation of the parable, it is of course possible that we ought not overinterpret. Jesus didn’t always give predictable responses. Chronological sequencing was not necessarily a part of the parabolic package. For example, in the eschatological parable of the wheat and darnel (Matt 13:24-30), it is the darnel that is gathered first and thrown into the furnace; but in the eschatological parable of the sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46), the sheep go into the kingdom first, then the goats receive their punishment (vv. 34, 46). We must be careful not to make parables walk on all fours; that is, not every point in the parable has interpretive correspondence.
However, in this instance, the sequencing seems to be intentional—and many scribes, though trying to improve on the logic of the presentation, missed the rhetorical power of Jesus’ message. The Lord seems to have painted a picture in which the Pharisees saw themselves as the first son. They would have regarded themselves as in a place of privilege, the first ones chosen by God, and those who actually obeyed the Father’s will. (One is reminded of the ancient rabbinic prayer: “I thank you, Lord, that you did not make me a woman or a Gentile”!) Then came the O’Henry twist: The Pharisees are not the first son, but the second. They are not the ones who have obeyed their heavenly Father, but the tax collectors and prostitutes are! In some respects, this chronological reversal is reminiscent of Nathan’s approach to King David when he pointed out his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:1-7). Both Nathan and Jesus ‘set up’ the hearers to elicit a certain response (that of indignation at the disobedient one in the story), only to show that those very hearers were not on the side of righteousness.
Thus, when one looks at the internal coherence of the story, it seems evident that the Western reading flattens out the mystery and presents the Pharisees as not only unrighteous but blithering idiots. But such a lack of subtlety was probably not a part of the story or the historical situation. And the third reading improves the text—at first glance—but in reality seems to unravel the rich tapestry that is being woven by the Master Teacher himself.