“WHICH OF THE TWO DID HIS FATHER’S WILL?”
Ez 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Matt 21:28-32
The gospel of today is a parable about the contrasting attitudes of two sons. The first son said “No” to his father’s request to render him service, but after he came to his senses, he did his father’s wish. The second son said “Yes”’ but later, he did nothing. The question is: who is better between these two sons? The one who said “no” but at the end he fulfilled his father’s wish? Or the one who said “yes” but later, he did nothing. The answer to this question, somehow, hangs in the air.
1. THE CONTEXT OF THE PARABLE
Jesus told this parable in the temple in Jerusalem just a few days before he was arrested and put him to death. For three years he had been preaching to the people, inviting them to repent and believe the Good News. But during these years, he had discovered that, in fact, it was public sinners like the tax-collectors and prostitutes who responded to his invitation. The religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, even after they perceived the divine origin of the message of Jesus, still refused to accept it. Previously, they had greeted John the Baptist with the same attitude. They knew John’s teaching was from God but they would not admit it. As Jesus said to them, “even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32). They lacked the basic humility to acknowledge their sinfulness, like any other human being.
Jesus, therefore, likens the tax-collectors and prostitutes to the first son who said “No” but later did what the father wanted. The tax-gatherers and prostitutes obviously were not devoted followers. But many of them did change their ways and follow the Lord, and embrace his teachings. They knew they needed something in their life and came to John and to Jesus convicted of their sins. Jesus also likens the Pharisees and scribes to the son who enthusiastically said “Yes” but did not go. One group has no fine words but they have good deeds. The other group has fine words but no corresponding good deeds.
2. THE RELEVANCE OF THIS PARABLE TO TODAY’S WORLD
Applying this message for people of our own time, we discover that, among other intended messages found therein, it is also a parable of mercy. It is a parable about changing our minds in order to do what is right in God’s eyes, even if we have previously turned away from him for most of our lives. We would admit that we know people who have changed their ways. In the early years of their lives, such people are known to have said “No” to God by their sinful ways. But, as their lives move on, they began to see things differently and their “No” to God became a “Yes”. With time, they redeemed themselves by atoning for their mistakes and making the rest of their lives lovely and grace-filled. Here, we can cite the obvious examples of St. Matthew, the tax collector, who repented and became a faithful Apostle of Jesus and an evangelist. He even died as a martyr. There is St. Mary Magdalene who had also been a public sinner. When she listened to Jesus, she was humble enough to reject her former life, and said “Yes” by her actions. The gospels record that she was one of the very few courageous persons who remained faithful at the foot of Jesus’ cross. She was also the one that Jesus chose to carry the first news of his Resurrection to his apostles and to the world. Again, we take the famous and obvious example of St. Augustine of Hippo. He was a great sinner who later changed his mind and said a resounding ‘Yes’ to God. Today, he is an unshakable pillar of the Church.
On the other hand, apart from these examples of hardened sinners who repent and alter their manner of life and actually give inspiring example to the rest of us, there are also, unfortunately, good people who fall away from their virtuous lives and renounce the Lord, his teaching and even his Church. Today’s first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel, speaks of people of this sort. “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life”. The Lord makes it very clear that people who repent and change their ways can count on being warmly received by him, whereas the good people who do not persevere will be condemned. The people in Ezekiel’s time had complained that the Lord’s ways were not just, but the Lord is quick to refute that charge and point out that he judges people on their final state: it is their position at the end of life that counts. Former transgressions will be forgiven if one deserves this, and former goodness will count for nothing if one does not care to remain faithful. It is, therefore, clear that God gives everyone a chance; there is always the possibility of reforming. But, sad enough, there is also the constant possibility of falling away. That is why no one should ever relax and say: “I have it made!” or “I have arrived!”
There is an old saying, in the context of sports, which can be fittingly linked to this parable: “It is not where you start that counts. It is where you finish.” The Jewish leaders thought that, because of their education, wealth, power and high social status, they should be the leading candidates for entry into God’s kingdom. But, they are precisely the ones who were in danger of not getting into heaven at all.
3. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WORDS AND DEEDS
Today’s gospel also calls us to consider the relationship between our words and our deeds. We must strive to translate our noble promises into noble performances, to translate our fine words into fine deeds. Yet in our daily experiences, we meet people whose words do not march their actions. Quite often they are people whom we trust. It is very painful to have a close person tell you that he/she is going to do something for you, and that person ends up not doing it. Let us imagine the scene of the funeral of a young, vibrant, husband and father of children, who has died suddenly. His wife (widow) is now left to raise the children on her own, singlehandedly. During the moment of testimonies before the burial, a good number of family members, sympathizers and close friends come up to her in public and say, “Don’t worry, we’ll be there for you.” Now, several years after her husband’s death; she testifies thus: “Well, some people have come to my aid in my moments of need. However, to tell you the truth, most of these are people who never made any promises at the funeral. As for those who sounded so earnest at the funeral home, none has ever called or visited. I have never heard from them again.” Life has taught us to be wary of certain people; not just blatant liars, but those who are all talk with no follow-through. When a simple acquaintance disappoints us, we are hurt, but not terribly crushed. However, when someone very close makes a promise and then fails to fulfill it, it hurts so deeply. It is all words and no action.
In this respect, this gospel makes a clear distinction between two very common types of people in this world:
a) There are the people whose proclamations or words are much better than their practice. They imagine that they are good because they follow all the laws. They will promise anything, make great pronouncements or solemn declarations of piety and fidelity. “I’m a catholic because I was baptized as a Catholic.” But their practice lags behind. Such Christians conform outwardly to the law. They are seen regularly at Mass, offer the required contributions, belong to parish organizations and pay their dues. In fact, they function on Sundays in a very conspicuous way. But on Monday, they seem to throw religion to the devil. They seem to put law of God into his back pocket. Their sense of justice and moral decency are forgotten until the next “rendez-vous”, coming the following Sunday.
b) There are those whose practice is far better than their words. They claim to be tough, hard-headed materialists, not attending Sunday Masses but somehow they are found to be doing kind and generous things almost in secret as if they were ashamed of their generosity and kindness. They profess to have no interest in the Church and in religion and yet when it comes to practical living, they live more Christian lives than many professing Christians.
It is one thing to profess faith and to speak with fervent religiosity. It is quite another to live the faith. Deeds speak louder than words. It may sound commonplace to say that, but nonetheless it expresses a very deep truth. More than anything we say, more than any words uttered, it is the service that we offer and the love that we share which truly proclaims our love for God; our discipleship of Jesus. How we live and act; how we serve and how we love, not what we say, give expression to our belief and our trust in the God who saves. You do not only have to talk the talk; you must also walk the walk.
4. “WHICH OF THE TWO DID HIS FATHER’S WILL?”
Judging the behaviour of the two sons in the parable of today, our first instinct is to try to make a choice between the two, just as the Jewish religious leaders did. Let us consider some practical examples: Can one honestly decide which of these examples is the better:
A rude and disrespectful child who does not steal or a gentle, quiet and respectful child with ‘long fingers’?
A husband who is discourteous and bullies the entire family but does not drink or a drunkard who is gentle and very kind when sober?
A popular teacher who neither comes to class regularly nor sticks to his/her course outline or the terror, but effectively present teacher, from whom the students learn a lot?
A nagging wife who runs the home efficiently or a disorderly wife who is affectionate?
A Catholic who is regular in church but breaks the homes of others or a fallen-away Catholic who is close to his/her family and respects the homes of others?
A couple married in the church who quarrel and fight regularly or a couple that lives together without the blessing of the sacrament of marriage but are very loving and happy?
A pious and prayerful Christian whose life-style is a scandal or a person who does not even believe in God but is morally upright?
The truth is that we have to admit that none of these are acceptable ways of conduct, even if the one looks more appealing than the other. The fact is that none of the sons is better than the other in the sense that both caused their father pain. The first one brought pain to his father at the beginning, and the other one inflicted pain at the end. Both could have been better sons by giving a whole-hearted “Yes”, spontaneously and joyfully. They could have carried through with their “Yes” by carrying out their father’s order efficiently and not the other way around – by which the ‘no’ of the first son turned into ‘yes’ and the ‘yes’ of the second one became a ‘no’.
Ideal sons and daughters are those who say yes to their parents and then go on to do what is commanded. The true Christian should be better than both sons. A true Christian should be a person of “integrity”, one whose “yes” means “yes” and whose “No” means “no”. That is what Jesus calls our attention to in the Sermon on the Mount when he says: “Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil” (Mtt 5:37). There should not be any middle point between the two. This is what we should aim to be — men and women who profess our faith in word and deed – knowing that “Not all those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Today, we are invited to reflect on the promises we have made to God, to others and to ourselves and see how faithful we have been to those promises. Husbands and wives are to recall their marriage vows to love each other, “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Priests, consecrated men and women, and other religious people are invited to reflect on their solemn vow to God to serve him and his people. Our government officials and our elected leaders should remember the promises made when they were put into office – that they will serve the public and that they will do their very best to serve the common good. Medical doctors, lawyers and all other professionals and people who once promised to use their knowledge and skills to help, serve and protect others, are likewise reminded to look back and remember the oaths they once took. Today, we are all enjoined to beat our breasts and say “MEA CULPA” (“Through my fault”) for the many times we have been so untrue, and for the times we have betrayed THE INTEGRITY we stand for as true Christians and followers of Jesus Christ in our various walks of life.