Matthwe 21:28-32, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
This confrontation between Jesus and the hierarchs happened after three critical events: First, Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which was like falling into the trap of his enemies; Second, the cleansing of the Temple, which gave his enemies categorical grounds to pounce on him, and third, the cursing of the fig tree, the symbol for Israel. This time, Jesus really becomes quite aggressive with the hierarchs. He is now openly exasperated with the fruitlessness and barrenness of Israel’s Temple culture: elaborate in sacrifice but meager in charity; obsessive about rules but blind to social justice; too many words of prayer, too little acts of mercy. Jesus tells today’s parable in mid-confrontation with the hierarchs. It’s very easy to see Jesus compare them to the elder son, and compare the the sinners to the younger son. As the sinners turn their no to a yes, the hierarchs keep saying yes but have nothing to show for it.
I’ve had a few students who submitted their requirements late. And they’ve said, “Father, I had every intention to turn this in on time, but…,” and then a shortlist of excuses. Because I’m not in the army, I’ve had to “empathize” and “give consideration” and “listen,” and all that. I confess, though, that I’ve felt like saying: “Well, your intention is appreciated. But it’s your paper that gets the grade.” I’ve never really said that, but you understand what I’m saying, right? That out here in the world, whether you’re religious or lay, whether you’re superior or formand, boss or employee—what really counts in the end is acting out good intentions. In fact, I’ve observed, we are more forgiving of people who end up going the wrong way but on a good intention. We’re less forbearing with people who say they had the best intentions, but ended up really doing nothing. That’s why we have expressions like “words, words, words,” or “put your money where your mouth is,” or my favorite, “pulitiko,” or this gesture (‘talking hand’). We know the feeling of getting the raw end of good intentions but no delivery.
I think about the elder son and I remember the saying, “the road to perdition is paved with good intentions.” When I was young, my elders said that even if you had good intentions all the time, but you don’t act on them, you’d go to hell. That’s what “perdition” means, isn’t it? From the Latin, perdere, to destroy. Now that I’m older, I believe that God forgives both our sins of commission and our sins of omission. If a mere teacher like me can grudgingly give consideration to a student’s good intention despite his failure of delivery, how much more God? I still believe in perdition, though; not the idea of destruction, but the idea of loss—from the Spanish perder: to lose something. When I’m always full of good intentions but not deliver, full of plans but not deliver, full of promises but not deliver, I lose. I lose my credibility. I lose sincerity. I lose integrity. I lose people. When I’m just all about good intentions, I get lost in an altered state of reality where the center of gravity is myself. Well, maybe it’s not a very lonely place after all. Because in that planet of masterful intentions, I have company: my philosophies, my ideals, my visions, my best scenarios; also, my fears, my apprehensions, my anxiety, and my wishy-washiness.
Then, I think of the younger son, and I figure: for an ever-patient, ever-loving, ever-waiting father, it’s never really too late for a child to act on a good desire. Even for loving parents today, a beloved child’s good actions are neither too soon nor too late.
We all have a streak of both the older son and the younger son within all of us, haven’t we, sisters and brothers? But you know, I’ve seen enough people turn their lives around from an elder son to a younger son, from a no to a yes to God. I’ve noticed, what turns bad intentions into good intentions, and turns good intentions into good actions is not so much the threat of hell-fire anymore, no. It’s something better. It’s when people realize that despite themselves, God fathers them lovingly and patiently, nevertheless. That’s what I notice turns someone from an elder son to a younger son, from a life of noes to a life of yeses to God: that deep sense God’s incredible patience and freeing love. To that kind of a God, shown clearly and perfectly by Jesus, our yes is never too soon and never too late.
*image from the Internet