Summary: Every one of us, at the end of every day, should ask the same question: are we the first son or daughter, who refused, or the second, who said “yes, sir,” but didn’t do?
26th Sunday in Course 2020
Anyone who has raised more than one child can empathize with the parent in this story from St. Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, it’s a little like the story of the Prodigal Son from St. Luke. Dad says to the first son, presumably the oldest, “Go work in the vineyard today.” He gets a hearty, “No, I will not.” Perhaps the lad has a book report to write, or wants to go out with friends. But after he stews on it a while, and maybe thinks about the fourth commandment of Torah, he repents–that means turns completely around– and goes to work as he was told to do.
Son number two hears the command and says, “Yes, sir, I’ll go forthwith.” But he doesn’t go. And notice what Jesus asks at this point. He didn’t ask “who gave the correct answer to dad?” He didn’t want to know which of the lads was nicer. And He certainly didn’t ask His listeners which one was most popular. Son number one was kind of a jerk, and a cheeky one at that, because he said “no” right to his father’s face. So nice? Certainly not. Popular? I wouldn’t want to have coffee with the guy, would you? Son number two was a kind of “get along with everybody” fellow.
But Jesus didn’t ask about all that. He wanted to know “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The cheeky, unpopular jerk, who repented. So let’s look back at the other Scriptures and see what’s going on here.
The prophet Ezekiel was in Babylon after the first batch of exiles had been dragged there from the first conquest of Jerusalem. It appears that they spent a lot of time moaning and complaining and we can tell from this reading what they were griping about. “Our ancestors for generations disobeyed Torah and worshiped false gods and did awful things, but look, God, we are the ones who get punished. That’s not fair.” They thought they were being punished for their ancestors’ crimes. But that wasn’t true. Read the second book of kings, and you’ll see that the people of Judah were messing up and disobeying God right up to the fall of their kingdom. Punishment is not for somebody else’s crime; if you are punished, it’s for your own sin. As St. Paul taught, “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Everybody is in the situation either of the first son or of the second. But Ezekiel holds out hope for son number one: “repent of your wickedness and do what is just and right, and you will live.”
Those of us who have accepted the graces of our sacraments of initiation and have actively pursued a Christian life, who have repented of the sins of our youth so that God has forgotten them, have a challenge today from St. Paul. Paul is giving us the path to becoming like Our Lord Jesus Christ. We have to put on the mind of Jesus, each of us having the same love for God and for each other that Christ did. The worldly person is always scrambling for himself or herself, not caring a flip about what happens to others on our way to money or glory or power. Jesus, and the true disciple of Jesus, “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than” themselves. Yes, we can look to our own interests, but always keeping in mind what others need. Our comforts, our pleasures cannot infringe on the rights of others, especially the helpless, to life, freedom, and adequate shelter and food. That, ultimately, is why abortion is so wrong, because it puts my comfort ahead of the right to life of a defenseless, innocent human being. We are called to be servants, not lords, and in one way or another to lay down our lives like Jesus to the glory of the Father.
So let’s look once more at the Gospel. To whom is Jesus speaking? Matthew is clear–His audience is a group of Jewish leaders, especially the chief priests. They were still angry that Jesus had cleaned out the Court of the Gentiles by throwing out the moneychangers and pigeon merchants. They demanded Jesus’s credentials, but our Lord had stumped them by asking whose authority John the Baptist was operating under. They couldn’t answer because both answers would make their situation bad. So they were angry and Jesus had endured enough of their faithless nit-picking. So He essentially said, “You guys say you obey the Law but you miss the whole point of the Law–to make the Temple so full of beauty and goodness and truth that the whole world thirsts to worship there.” The whores and tax collectors refused to obey the Law but when they heard my preaching they repented. So who’s the saint and who’s the sinner here?