Posted September 26, 2020
Yr A Ordinary Time 26th Sunday of the Year
Jesus applies this Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21: 28-32) to two groups in Jewish society, namely, the religious leaders on the one hand, and public sinners on the other. The religious leaders had, by definition, originally said yes to God’s covenant with Israel, but they did not live up to their commitment, for they rejected the preaching of John the Baptist with its call to repentance and reform; whereas the public sinners, who by definition had said no to the demands of religion, later repented, for they accepted John’s preaching and changed their ways. It is they who are making their way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
But the lesson of the parable is not tied to its historical context, for it can be applied more generally to the religious and moral condition of every person in every age. Here are some reflections on how some of its lessons might be relevant for us.
An obvious lesson is that in our relationship with God it is not words or good intentions that count but action. We are what we do, not what we once said we would do or what we kid ourselves we are doing. I spoke in a recent sermon about the paramountcy of grace: our salvation is through and through a divine work. Nothing that I said then contradicts what I am saying now, namely, that our moral conduct is pivotal for our destiny. For, far from rendering moral effort superfluous, grace actually demands it. As St Paul says: ‘It is God who works in you the willing and the doing: therefore, work at your salvation with fear and trembling.’
A more particular lesson of the parable is this: Supposing we have said no to God’s will in the past, still the possibility of repentance is always there; and repentance, when genuine, undoes the past in God’s eyes. And so it should undo the past in our eyes too; we should be assured that God accepts our change of heart; and we should stop worrying. That is not to say that the past may not leave us with an agenda for the present: for there will be hurts to heal, where possible; and damage to undo; and restitution to be made. But if we are prepared to take our present agenda seriously, then we should leave the past in God’s hands and trust in his ability to make all things new. It is not what we have done in the past that is decisive for our future in God’s eyes, but what we do now. When the first son changed his mind after first saying no, the parable did not hold his initial disobedience against him; and neither does God hold our past failures against us when we give proof of a genuine change of heart. That is one very reassuring lesson that the parable has for us.
Another lesson, perhaps less reassuring, is this: To the religious leaders it will have come as a preposterous insult to hear that their professed religious commitment was no more than empty words, that it was entirely lacking in real obedience – in a word, that it was false. When Jesus applied the parable to them, they would surely not have said to themselves: ‘Oh dear! He’s rumbled our little game! He knows we’re false!’ On the contrary, they would have regarded Jesus’ criticism of them as entirely unreasonable, for they were serenely persuaded that their yes to God’s will was authentic; indeed, for them it was a matter of pride. It is what distinguished them from the riffraff and the public sinners.
Well, we are religious people, and we would no doubt be similarly shocked and insulted to hear that our yes to God was inauthentic. I am not saying it is. But the point is, it is not always easy to tell, and to make matters worse, motives may change over time. I don’t think the second son in the parable intended to deceive his father. At the time, he really did mean, ‘Yes, I’ll go!’ Perhaps he then got caught up with other things; or perhaps he interpreted his father’s instruction as – what do they call it nowadays? – a medium-term target rather than as a call to action. We just don’t know. The parable itself does not speculate about motives. But once we step outside the parable and try to apply it to ourselves, we have to acknowledge that we are immensely complicated beings, creatures of endless ambiguity, and often we don’t even notice, let alone understand, our deepest motives – which is frightening, for the deeper down our motives are, the more essentially moral they are in character, and the more crucially they define our identity and our spiritual orientation. At all events, our yes to religion will always be open to God’s scrutiny, who sees in secret and searches the heart: and we may be surprised at God’s verdict. An untroubled conscience is not necessarily a guarantee that all is well deep down. It could mean exactly the opposite. Only when we come to look into the mirror of God’s truth in eternity shall we really know whether, and to what extent, the criticism that Jesus levels against the religious leaders in today’s parable has also applied to us.
In the meantime, even if we shall never in this life see ourselves as God sees us, nevertheless a degree of healthy introspection would not come amiss: we do need to examine ourselves, to be constantly seeking greater self-knowledge, in the light of God’s truth. For only the truth will set us free. I am not saying that we should be over-scrupulous or so intent on self-analysis that we never open ourselves to a child-like trust in God our Father; only that we should be realistic, and try to be free of all presumption. We should pray constantly that God will fill us with his goodness, rid us of all pretence and purify us of all mendacity and ill will: that he will, in St John’s words, ‘sanctify us in the truth’, or, as the Psalmist puts it, more poetically: ‘sprinkle us with hyssop, and we shall be cleansed; wash us, and we shall be made whiter than snow.’ Of all the things we pray for, that should be at the top of the list, and should remain there throughout our lives.
In this Eucharist we share in Jesus’ ‘yes’ to the Father. Now that is liberation indeed: for Jesus’ yes to the Father is eternally real. It defines his identity. And the purpose of this Eucharist is that through his grace Jesus’ yes should come to define our identity as well. In the Eucharist Jesus’ prayer for us to the Father becomes a reality: ‘Father, for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’ Make the Eucharist the centre of your lives. It is your eternal yes to the Father.
Fr Tom Deidun