Matthew 21:31 Which of these two did the will of [his] father?

KJV Verse: 

Mat 21:31 Whether of them twain did the will of his father? Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.

Greek Verse: 

Literal Alternative: 

Which of the pair performed the desires of the father? I tell the truth: the tax-collectors and prostitude lead you on into the realm of God.

Interesting and Hidden Aspects: 

Again, the topic is how one thing follows another, the first and the last, but you cannot tell this from the English. There is humor hidden here in a rare word for Christ that he hasn't used before but works here because of its double meaning.

The word translated as "whether" means "anyone" or "someone." In a question, it can mean "who", "why," or "what."

The Greek preposition translated as "of" means "out of" of "from." In Greek, they use the genitive case instead of a preposition for the types of phrases that usually use with "of."

"Twain" is from the number "two" preceded by an article, "the two." The Greek word for "two" means "two", "pair," or a "couple."

The Greek word translated as "did" has the primary meaning of "making" or producing" something or "causing" or "rendering" as service. In this context, "perform" comes closest in English.

The word translated as "will" means what someone wants or desires as well as the "will" of character. It mostly means what one wishes or has determined shall be done. It also means a desire or a choice.

"Of his father" is the from the common word that Christ uses to address his own father, though it can mean any male ancestor. There is no "his" appearing in the Greek source. It is simple "the father."

The "verily" phrase is used frequently by Christ. Its meaning is discussed in detail in this article. It is repeated so often that it becomes Christ's "catch phrase," used whenever he wants to make a point.

The Greek term translated as "publican" means "farmer" and "tax collector." By Christ's time, they were not tax farmers, that is, private individuals who bought the right to collect taxes. They worked directly for Rome, but the term "farmer" seems to have stuck. Historically, these people were both rich and notoriously corrupt, especially as tax farmers, and they were made into government employees to reform them. They also seem to be associated with having lavish parties. When Christ is accused of being a drunk and a glutton, this idea is supported by the fact he is a friend with tax-collectors.

"The harlots" is from the Greek word that means "prostitute." It is from a verb that means "for sale", "bought," and "ruined."

"Go...before" is from a Greek verb which means to "lead forward," "lead on,""persuade", "lead the way," and "go before." The play on meaning here between "lead on" and "lead the way." This is not in the future tense, something that is going to happen, but the present tense, so the listener had no way to expect what follows.

The word translated as "into" means "into" a place, "towards" as a direction, and "up to" limits in time and measure.

Imagine a pause here, setting up the punch line that reverses the meaning of "lead on" into "go before."

The word translated as "kingdom" can be the region, the reign, the castle or the authority of a ruler. Christ does not seem to use it to mean a physical region, so its translation as "reign" or "realm" seems more appropriate. This is especially true because the "reign" of a king means the execution of his will.

The end of this verse sets up the next verse Mat 21:32 to explain how.

Greek Vocabulary: 

τίς (irreg sg masc nom) "Whether" is from tis which can mean "someone", "any one", "everyone", "they [indefinite]", "many a one", "whoever", "anyone", "anything", "some sort", "some sort of", "each", "any", "the individual", "such," and so on. In a question, it can mean "who", "why," or "what."

ἐκ "Of" is from ek, which means 1) [of motion] "out of", "from", "by", "away from;" 2) [of place] "beyond", "outside of", "beyond;" 3) [of succession] "after", "from;" 4) [of rest] "on", "in," 5) [of time] "since", "from", "at", "in;" 5) [of materials] "out of", "made from."

τῶν (article pl masc gen) δύο (numeral) "Two" is from duo, which means the number "two", "a couple," and "a pair."

ἐποίησεν (verb 3rd sg aor ind act) "Did" is from poieo, which means "to make", "to produce", "to create", "to bring into existence", "to bring about", "to cause", "to render", "to consider", "to prepare", "to make ready," and "to do." -

τὸ θέλημα (noun sg neut nom) "The will" is from the noun, thelema, which means "will" and "pleasure."

τοῦ πατρός; "of his father" is from pater, which means "father", "grandfather", "author", "parent," and "forefathers."

Ἀμὴν "Verily" is from amen, which is from the Hebrew, meaning "truly", "of a truth," and "so be it." It has no history in Greek before the NT

λέγω (1st sg pres ind act) "I tell" is from lego, which means "to recount", "to tell over", "to say", "to speak", "to teach", "to mean", "boast of", "tell of", "recite," nominate," and "command." It has a secondary meaning "pick out," "choose for oneself", "pick up", "gather", "count," and "recount." A less common word that is spelt the same means "to lay", "to lay asleep" and "to lull asleep."

ὑμῖν (pron 2nd pl dat) "To you" is from humin the plural form of su the pronoun of the second person, "you."

ὅτι "That" is from hoti, which introduces a statement of fact "with regard to the fact that", "seeing that," and acts as a causal adverb meaning "for what", "because", "since," and "wherefore." -- The word translated as "that" introduces a statement of fact or cause

οἱ τελῶναι "The publicans" is from telônês, which means "farmer," and "collector of toll, custom, and taxes."

καὶ "And" is from kai, which is the conjunction joining phrases and clauses, "and," or "but." After words implying sameness, "as" (the same opinion as you). Used in series, joins positive with negative "Not only...but also." Also used to give emphasis, "even", "also," and "just."

αἱ πόρναι (noun pl fem nom) "The harlots" is from porne, which means "harlot," and "prostitute." It is from a verb that means "for sale", "bought," and "ruined."

προάγουσιν (verb 3rd pl pres ind act) "Go...before" is from proago, which means to "lead forward", "carry on", "bring forward", "lead on," "induce," "persuade," "carry forward," "advance," "lead the way," and "go before."

ὑμᾶς (pron 2nd pl acc) "You" is from humas which is the plural form of su the pronoun of the second person, "you."

εἰς "Into" is from eis, which means "into (of place)," "up to (of time)", "until (of time)", "as much as (of measure or limit)", "as far as (of measure or limit)", "towards (to express relation)", "in regard to (to express relation)", "of an end or limit," and "for (of purpose or object)."

τὴν βασιλείαν (noun sg fem acc) "The kingdom" is from basileia, which means "kingdom", "dominion", "hereditary monarchy", "kingly office," (passive) "being ruled by a king," and "reign."

τοῦ θεοῦ. (noun sg masc gen) "God" is from theos, which means "God," the Deity."

Wordplay: 

The double meaning of the word translated as "go...before" as "lead on." The normal association with tax-collectors and prostitutes is to "lead on" in the sense of to induce or persuade, but Christ changes it around with the phrase that follows, "into the kingdom of God." 

The Spoken Version: 

Which of these two did what his father wanted?
Truly, I say,
The corrupt rich and the prostitutes,
lead you on,
into,
the realm of the divines.

Related Verses: