Matthew 21:28-32, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Pictures are cheap nowadays. You see this when photographers just click away with abandon. It is no longer enough to just have one photo; there has to be a “safety” one as well. This inflation is easily explained by the law of supply and demand. Lots of supply (surpassing demand), low price.
Words are cheap nowadays. Lots of words in the air nowadays, clicking away with gleeful abandon. Words thrown at each other, profanities vandalizing the public square, words pasted on top of other words, recycled, redacted, and reversed.
The predictable outcome is more than just the cheapening of words. The tragic consequence is the depreciation of trust. And with gathering mistrust, comes greater division. With division, more multiplication of words cheap and crude to subvert the residual trust, and so forth and so on.
In the Gospel story today, the first son says no to his father, he will not go to work on the vineyard, but goes just the same. The second says yes he will, but in the end does not. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did his father’s will?”
Curiously, Jesus did not ask, who lied. Perhaps he knew that words could be forced and fleeting. The Word of God was looking for the truth behind our words. And he knew better than to trust our stumbling syllables.
Jesus was looking for the truth and truth will be found more in our actions than in our words. Surely we mean to be truthful in word and deed, that we are to say yes when we mean yes, or no when we mean no, but our Lord had a sense that, in truth and on many occasions, deeds more than words fail us. Or that deeds more than words make us.
“Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
Go figure. Contemporize that sentence of our Lord. Parse it carefully and find the equivalent of outcasts and sinners in our world today. And be shocked, as the mainstream religious leaders were by the rawness of those subversive words.
Surely by now, we learn from the parable of the two sons that deeds are greater than words, that actions speak louder than words, or that execution trumps profession. Or, in the words of Ignatius Loyola, love is shown more in deeds than in words. If these outcasts and sinners, these people of the “no”, were getting ahead, how can they be doers of the will of God? What deeds have they to show to justify their jumping the queue to the Kingdom of God?
The only deed that seems to make sense, the only deed that justifies them as doing the will of God is their simple act of turning to Jesus, of being present to him and receiving him in their lives. It was not for lack of understanding that they did open their doors to him; perhaps it was for want of mercy and meaning and joy in their lives.
The chief priests and elders were known to be people of the “yes”. They were the faithful doers of the Law but when Jesus turned up in their lives, they turned him down. In their hardness of heart, they chose to believe what they wanted to believe. It was not for lack of understanding that they did so; it was for lack of love and for plenty of pride.
It may be easy for us to say we are not these holy pretenders, these people whose words are divorced from their deeds. Today we are asked to look inside us again. Look to the times in our lives when it was easy to say sorry but there was no real contrition, no effort to make amends, to repair what was reparable, or to return what was taken. Look back to those instances when we readily professed our love in words but could not match the words with self-emptying acts of presence or patience or pardon.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us that God loved us in word and deed, incarnating his Word in the flesh of Christ Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, …becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
If we are to know then where we are in the queue to our destiny, we only need to look at where our deeds and choices are leading us. We only need to discern the pattern of our deeds and see to what extent this pattern matches the turning of our lives Godward.
Never mind the words. Words can be bought on the cheap, especially when supply outstrips demand. Look at deeds. And the way those deeds are turning out a costly pattern that can mean the death or life of us in the end.