A little context is needed to appreciate more fully this passage. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus had already triumphantly entered Jerusalem, gone to the temple area, overturned the money changers tables and the seats of those selling doves for sacrifice, and, and quoting Isaiah, proclaimed that God’s house shall “be a house of prayer but you are making it a den of thieves”. He then leaves the city, going to Bethany where he spends the night.
The next day, after cursing a fig tree which was all leaves but had no fruit on it to eat, Jesus went back into Jerusalem. The chief priests and the elders approached and asked by what authority was he doing these things. Instead of answering them directly, Jesus posed a question about John the Baptist and his baptism: “Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” They were stymied. If they answered heavenly, then why did they not believe him? If they answered of human origin, they feared the crowd who considered John a prophet. So they said, “We do not know.”
But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook that easily. He asks for their opinion about the parable we just heard concerning the behavior of the two sons. The first answers his father rather rudely by saying: “I will not.” . He injures the father’s dignity and standing in the community and the family’s reputation. Then he changes his mind, re-thinking his response, in other words, repenting, and does what his father asked. The 2nd son immediately says yes but doesn’t follow through, all nice sounding words and apparent obedience, all leaves but no fruit like the fig tree. This time they answered and Jesus hammers them, pointing out the people they harshly judged are entering the kingdom of God before them.
But, I think there’s a third possibility: to say yes and do what the father asks but carelessly, as a matter of duty but without any real feeling or heart. Imagine a mother who does the laundry for her family but ignores her child crying out for her love; or a father who work long hours to provide food and shelter but doesn’t spend any time really listening to his wife and children; or a student who goes every day to class but doesn’t pay attention to the lessons being taught; or pastoral leadership either ordained or not that likes his or her position but doesn’t respond to peoples’ needs.
Is there another possibility? There is. And I hope and pray we all make it ours: the people who say “YES” and does whatever God asks them to do enthusiastically and wholeheartedly.