The gospel presents what may be referred to as the parable of the ‘Yes/No’ boys. A man asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. One son replies positively, but never goes to work. The other son reacts, “No, I will not!”, but later does do as he was asked. It is obvious to us, and to Jesus’ original audience, the chief priests and elders of the people, which of the two sons did his father’s will. Then the Lord explains to the chief priests and elders that the parable is actually about them. They are saying “yes” but not living by faith. In contrast, the tax collectors and prostitutes, whose “no” is evident to everyone, are changing their ways. Thus, Jesus says, “they are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
The truly marvelous moment in the parable is when the son who said “no” has a change of heart. It is as if his initial resistance, self-will and rebellion are no longer of any consequence. We learn from this that God wants our change of heart more than our words. If our “yes” to him comes from the heart and not merely from our lips, then we will willingly serve him. But if we refuse him from inside, no matter how good we may look on the outside, we remain stuck in our self-will; we miss the opportunity to respond to grace.
God’s patience with us is evidence of his great love. He is willing to put up with many “no’s” when there is still hope for a “yes.” To our distorted way of thinking, however, the Lord’s ways can often seem unfair. This is the disorder Ezekiel exposes in the first reading. We judge God’s ways as unfair because his justice seems cruel and his mercy seems unjust. It seems that he allows innocent people to suffer and lets the guilty go unpunished. When we complain, “How could a God of love permit such things?”, it is as if we are saying: “I don’t like the way you do things, God; I have a better idea!” The result is that we distance ourselves from God. Some even go so far as to deny that he exists. It is frightening to see how arrogant we can be in our thinking.
Our judgment of others is also distorted. We have a natural tendency to demand rigid justice, leaving little room for mercy, forgiveness and second chances. We define justice as truth without love. We expect an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Looking on an offender, we label him, saying, ‘Once a thief, always a thief; once a sinner, always a sinner.’ But when we look at ourselves, we use a different standard. If something is too hard for us to accomplish on our own, we deem it impossible. Therefore, God is unfair to make such a demand on us: “How can he expect me to be honest, chaste or generous?”
How quickly we forget what the power of God can do in the human heart! Our own lives are examples of how merciful he is with sinners. Our hearts are no different than any of the other “tax collectors and prostitutes” in the world. We may well be worse than many of those we consider “sinners.” But that is not the issue. God wants us to turn to him, not against ourselves or against anyone else. He in his mercy can bring good out of evil. He can change minds and hearts. His healing grace is the answer for anyone caught in any kind of sin pattern, in addictions, self-destructive behavior, greed, jealousy, hatred, pride, etc.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul describes the way we are to relate to one another as children of God. Instead of demands, expectations, judgments and complaints, we are to be united in mind and heart. “Never act out of rivalry or conceit; rather, let all parties think humbly of others as superior to themselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than his own.” This kind of unity and selfless love would be impossible for us had not Christ made it possible through his death on the cross. Thus, when Paul tells us that our attitude must be Christ’s, he is revealing the way that has been made available to us, the way of selfless humility, the way of obedience to the point of a complete gift of self in death. God’s whole premise is that through Jesus’ death on the cross, what he asks of us is not impossible – difficult at times, certainly, but not impossible! Our Lord is a God of change, of transformation. He who turned water into wine, bread into his body and wine into his blood can certainly turn us sinners into saints. This is our sure hope: that by his grace we can all be changed.
St. John Paul II spoke of this certainty in his great encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor. “Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit” (VS 103).
The final word, then, is not our “no” to God. It is not our “yes,” either, as important as this is. What is even more fundamen-tal is the “yes” of Jesus to the Father. This is the “yes” already at work in us who believe.
When have I judged God’s ways as being unfair? Do I trust that he will bring good out of evil? Is my heart filled with demands and complaints or is it focused on the will of God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.