Two Sons, Two Responses

13 December 2005, Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Advent
Matthew 21, 28-32: The Two Sons

The parable of the two sons is peculiar to Matthew and functions as a response to the criticism that Jesus accommodates those considered sinners and outcasts: prostitutes and tax collectors. The parable has three main characters: the vineyard owner represents God, the first son stands for the tax collectors, and the second son characterizes the Pharisees. The first son says no to his father’s request, but changes his mind and goes to the vineyard. The second son says yes, changes his mind, and never appears at the vineyard. To work in the vineyard therefore symbolizes obedience to God’s will.

If one looks closely, the parable does not praise both sons: each of their response is incomplete and lacks an element from the ideal that our word and our action should be consistent. The ideal is one who says yes unquestioningly and carries them out totally. In the parable the father gets hurt in either way: when a son says no, the father gets hurt; on the other hand, when a son says yes, but didn’t go, the father feels betrayed.

It seems that both sons characterize our response to God. Let me begin with the second son: it is easy to say yes to God in an outward appearance especially in an applauding crowd. We can look pious externally like the Pharisees who would display their “holy practices” with phylacteries. We can show to the world that we come to mass everyday, or we have a bible in our hand for all to see or a rosary dangling from our fingers. But what makes us disciples is our obedience to the Father’s will. Jesus said, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of God, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7, 21). How many times have we promise the Lord commitment and faithfulness under the influence of fear from the Lord’s ‘wrath’ (the undertone of being unlucky), or an emotionally high spiritual experience from retreats and charismatic prayer sessions, or a shaking experience of near death? But eventually, when all is calm and ordinary, we slide back into the usual, with a little sinfulness here and there.

On the other hand, like the first son, many of us come to say yes after a series of refusal, resistance, and delay. Thomas Merton, after a living a bohemian and sinful life, writes: "The whole thing passed in a flash... I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul... I was filled with horror at what I say... and my soul desired escape... from all this with an intensity and an urgency unlike anything I had known before." And for the first time he prayed. And for the first time, said yes after so many refusals to follow God’s will. Eventually, after becoming a reported for The New York Times at 24 years old, Thomas became a Trappist monk at 26. Many stories of priests and nuns follow such a pattern. Though they have seen that they may have a calling to enter into religious life earlier, their decisions to pursue it have been delayed by fear from parents who refuse to give them permission, fear of the unknown, and the desire to experience and enjoy their young life before entering.

The question of Jesus about who among them eventually does God’s will gives us an insight on what is ultimately important: doing God’s will. It is the importance accorded to action over plans and resolutions written on paper. The teaching of Jesus is primarily meant to be lived out, to be put into action. Reflections are useful only when it is carried on in reality. It is therefore not enough to make new resolutions or promises, to put beautiful projects on documents, or to memorize the Church’s encyclicals. Without action, all these words are plain fiction. In the Season of Advent, we are asked to look back and focus on the promises we broke, the resolutions we left on paper, and the commitments we left undone. And then put all of them into motion.

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