Today’s Gospel invites us to reflect once again on our call to work in the vineyard of the Lord. Last Sunday, we saw in the parable of the workers in the vineyard that the call can come to us at any hour of the day, at any stage of our life. That parable seems to imply that everyone who is called promptly goes out to work. However, there is another possibility, as revealed by today’s parable of the two sons. Those who are called might simply say yes without actually doing any work. Clearly, we are called not merely to say yes to God in our words, but to do the will of God in practice. In fact, what we do is much more important than what we say.
Jesus was aware that the religious leaders of his time were saying yes, claiming that they were faithful followers of God, but they were not converted in their hearts. They were more concerned with enforcing strict obedience to the Law than with making any interior change themselves. Theirs was more a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. Meanwhile, the “sinners” – the tax collectors and prostitutes – responded with repentant hearts to the call of John the Baptist. They turned from their disobedience and sin and began to follow the Lord. Thus, Jesus says, they are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders. Repentance is the key to “qualifying” for entrance into the Kingdom. And repentance is exactly what the chief priests are still lacking. They are too convinced of their own righteousness to admit that they too are sinners.
The tax collectors and prostitutes who repented are described very well in the first reading. Ezekiel reveals that it is possible for a wicked man to turn from wickedness to do what is right and just. Anyone who repents “shall surely live; he shall not die.” This is a beautiful revelation of how God’s mercy triumphs over his justice. We can imagine the complaint arising in the hearts of the chief priests and elders: “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Here we are, doing what is right, and you say that these wretched sinners are entering the Kingdom before us!? This is the complaint of every self-righteous person. When we think we are worthy of God’s favor, we do not like to hear that those whom we consider unworthy are surpassing us. It’s not fair! In a sense, this complaint is correct; the Lord does not treat us fairly, for he does not treat us as our sins truly deserve. The reason is not that he is unfair, however, but that he supersedes his fairness with his mercy.
The two sons in the parable are symbolic of two categories of people: those who merely talk about doing the will of God and those who actually do it. Jesus applies these two categories – the empty talkers and the repentant believers – to the religious leaders and the public sinners, such as the tax collectors and prostitutes. Matthew, the only evangelist who includes this parable in his Gospel, was a tax collector. He treasured this story because he knew well which category he himself belonged to, and how the Lord invited him into the Kingdom. We need to ask ourselves which category best describes us. There is always a danger that we are satisfying ourselves with a superficial yes to God, but keeping that yes in a separate compartment from the rest of our lives. If we tolerate such a split in our Christian life, if we are Christians on Sunday but not on Monday, then we are at risk of canceling our verbal yes with a practical no.
We know that it is never right to say no to God, so we do not dare to say it. Yet there are many ways we still say no, some more subtle than others. Some no’s are little more than impulsive first reactions. When we come to our senses, we can quickly change our minds and do what is right. But some no’s have deeper hidden roots. We might fool ourselves into thinking that we are rather good, telling ourselves that we do not murder anyone, commit adultery or steal. This allows us to comfortably “forget” our other sins, hidden in the heart: resentment, pride, selfishness, laziness, and envy. What about the times we ignore the needs of others, or when we are silent in the face of injustice, when we act like the priest and the Levite instead of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:29-37)? Righteousness is not a matter of merely looking good. Every sin, no matter how hidden, is a no to God! It looks bad to him!
The good news, however, is that we can be set free from all these sins if we repent and return humbly to the Lord. We can joyfully sing the words of today’s Psalm: “Good and upright is the LORD; thus he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice, he teaches the humble his way.”
How does the Lord “teach the humble his way”? He does not simply point out our no’s. He is not a policeman. The Lord invites us to grow beyond our self-centered preoccupations, to focus not on our failures or successes, but on the needs of others. This is the mature way of love described by St. Paul in the second reading. Paul begs us to empty ourselves, leaving behind our selfishness and vainglory, and looking to others’ interests rather than our own. This ideal of self-emptying love is exactly the way revealed by Jesus Christ himself. So Paul tells us, “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is all yes to the will of the Father. Let us allow his yes, his love, to ring out in our daily lives, in our words and especially in our deeds.
Do I say yes to God in my words but do not do his will in practice? Am I too convinced of my own righteousness to admit that I am a sinner? Am I a Christian on Sunday but not on Monday and the rest of the week?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.