Matthew 21:28-32, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
If we pay closer attention to the Gospel for today, immediately we are led to a very important element of the Christian life. The Gospel tells us that what ultimately counts is not what we say. Our “yes” or our “no” is finally measured up by what we do. What matters is the faith that “walks”, not empty claims that merely “talk”.
This is a consistent teaching of Jesus. In another part of the Gospel, he says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
Elsewhere we also hear him say, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is brother and sister and mother to me” (Mt 12:50).
The second son said “yes” to the father in the parable. But we know from the rest of the story that it was an empty word. He did not go to work in the vineyard.The original references to this son were the Pharisees. They professed commitment to God with their lips but their hearts were far from him. They claimed to be following the laws of their religion but they missed out on the real spirit of God’s laws – forgiveness, mercy, compassion and new beginnings.
The “first son” said “no” but he later changed his mind and went. Here, Jesus was immediately referring to the tax collectors and prostitutes who were regarded as public sinners and outcasts. Despite their negative reputation, however, they were the ones who proved to be more receptive of God’s invitation. When they encountered Jesus, they experienced conversion.
The contemporary references to the second son are not difficult to spot. They are quick with their judgments about others but are often blind to their own weaknesses. They are condescending toward people while they glory in self-righteousness. Many of them are active in the parish, with some indulging in the glamour of serving at the altar. St. Augustine once wrote, “How very many sheep there are outside the Church, and how very many wolves inside!”
We also have the modern versions of the first son. They have limited Church involvement. They do not speak openly about their faith because they don’t feel personally “adequate”. Sometimes they question tradition and live outside of conventional expectations. But you can sense their sincerity, especially in the sacrament of confession. They help others as much as they can, often away from the limelight.
Are our options at imitation limited to the first and second sons? I don’t believe so. I think neither of them is fully pleasing to the Father. The second son had nothing but empty talk. The first son went as told but only after having embarrassed his father by saying “no” at first. In a highly patriarchal Mediterranean culture, such a display of defiance was unthinkable.
I would like to propose instead the character of a third son in the parable. He is the son who says “yes” to the Father, and goes with haste and full commitment to work in the vineyard. He is the son whose words are true and whose work does not disappoint. He talks, and “walks the talk” at the same time. He is the son on whom the Father’s pleasure rests.
Jesus is the third son. It is to him that we look up to for a model. He is the one who is supremely deserving of imitation. “Through him, with him and in him”, we experience what it means to be genuinely pleasing to the Father.
We pray for the grace required to imitate in our lives the third son, Jesus. We ask that, like him, our “yes” becomes not just a word but a way of life.
*image from the Internet