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The Parable of the Two Sons: “It’s not how you start… It’s how you finish!”

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Matthew 21:28-32
28But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. 29He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. 30And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. 31Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.


  1. It’s not what you SAY, It’s what you DO
  2. It’s not how you START, It’s how you FINISH
  3. It’s not who you ARE, It’s who you can BECOME
  4. It’s not yet too late (for anyone) to CHANGE


In this short parable Jesus shows us God’s emphasis on deeds over words, accomplishments over intentions and growth over standing. The first son said he would not obey, but then he did (faithfulness). While the second son said he would do his father’s wishes, but then didn’t (believism). By application, God is far less interested in what we say and more interested in what we do. It is easy to say we believe/trust in God, it is much harder to actually demonstrate that belief/trust in our lives. If the extent of our faith lies in the words we say or principles we profess, then that is no faith at all.

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2:17)

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. ~James 1:22

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. ~James 2:14-18

It’s not what we say that matters; it’s what we do. The starkness of the parable on this matter is arresting. Absolutely NO credit is given to the son who initially gave the right (verbal) answer. Instead, the son who initially gave the wrong (verbal) answer gets ALL the credit. Clearly, their actions completely erased their original statements. In other words, it’s far less important to get the words right, than to get the deeds right. This notion is corroborated in the well-known Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) where the servants were judged on what they did, and NOT what they said/professed. Immediately following that parable, Jesus describes for His disciples what the Final Judgment would be like. In His account, the Father separates the sheep (the saved) from the goats (the unsaved) and notably the sole dividing factor was their deeds:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. ~Matthew 25:34-36

Notwithstanding, the Bible makes it clear that we are saved by grace though faith and “Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But we are saved UNTO works (Ephesians 2:10), so our deeds/actions reveal our heart condition in ways our words never can. As any science student can attest, only theories confirmed by experiment can be trusted. Likewise, the only way our faith can be verified is through our actions. Christians will never change the world with religious talk unless it is coupled with righteous walk.

…This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)

This parable also shows us that it’s not how we start that matters, it’s how we finish. The second son started off on the correct footing, he had the right answer, which might indicate that he had the right intentions. Perhaps he did mean to obey his father. The first son, it is clear, had the wrong intentions as well as the wrong answer. But, after he repented, the first son actually does his father’s bidding; while the second, despite his probable good intentions, doesn’t. As in the famous saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

The application is that it’s not enough to start well; we must finish well too. No winners are declared at the start of a race; winners are decided only at the finish line. So regardless of our good intentions, if the faith we profess does not lead us into obedience then:

As the body without the spirit is dead, so [our] faith without deeds is dead ~James 2:26.

Similarly, it doesn’t matter where we started; the errors of our past are inconsequential. No matter how filthy I was before, and no matter how filthy I am now, its not too late to turn around if I realize my state before God and, like the second son, I repent and then obey:

…This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus ~Philippians 3:13-14.

Thirdly, this parable of the two sons shows us the importance of transformation. The favorable outcome of the second son hinged on one thing: repentance. Repentance is the hinge on which transformation pivots. Only AFTER repentance did the change take place.

For our lives to be transformed by God we must repent; we must change our mindset from self-direction to God-direction, from rebellion to obedience. There is only one way: God’s way. But how do we get there? We get there by accepting the truth rather than avoiding it.

…Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind… (Romans 12:2)

Jesus told the parable in response to the badgering of the Pharisees. They knew John the Baptist was a prophet and they knew John declared Jesus to be the Messiah and they knew from Jesus’ miracles that He was sent from God (John 3:2) but to accept the truth meant they would have to change their ways. In the end they decided that stagnation was preferable to transformation and so they killed Him.

The same choice is open to us. If we know the Bible is real, then we must accept its teaching and yield to God’s way, i.e., we must repent. Until we submit to God it is impossible to obey Him. And so we—like the second Son—rather than being doers, we become professors of the faith only:

Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof ~2 Timothy 3:5.

Finally, Jesus leaves hope for all regardless of where we stand: in Matt. 21: 31 (above) He uses the word “before” rather than “and not”. By so doing he was telling the Pharisees and all of the other “second sons” that they still had a chance. The opportunity to repent had not yet passed them by; make use of it.


  • What are you DOING about what you know?
  • How are you FINISHING the race you started?
  • Are you BECOMING more than you are?
  • Will you start the CHANGE today?
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    • Thanks for stopping by Jennifer, the one and only… 🙂

      Most of us have a daily struggle in the doing department (you’ll usually find me straggling a few ‘aisles’ behind you). But God is merciful, and He promises never to give up on us.

      “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” ~ Philippians 1:6

      Please keep this page in your prayers, Jennifer.

      God Bless!

  1. Tope says

    Great Article, I was touched and moved at the same time while reading. May the Father grant you more wisdom, knowledge and understanding in Jesus name.. Amen

  2. Pingback: The Parable of the Two Sons: “It’s not how you start… It’s how you finish!” — Snippet | Reflections in the WORD

  3. Pius Lutakome says

    Thanks for this illustration. Am going to share with those I interface with. God bless you.

  4. Encouraging, looking at the first verse and following questions, it’s just was I needed. Copying and pasting into my personal devotional for the day. Thank you!!!

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