Sunday reflection: Matthew 21:28–32

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:28–32:

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

When we read these parables, we are called either implicitly or explicitly to ask ourselves which of the archetypes describe us. In this case, at least in my youth, I managed to be both of them in this parable. More often, I was the second son, a fact that used to frustrate my father no end. I’d just pay lip service to following his instruction and then find ways to ignore them. When I did bother to do what I was told, I’d do so grumbling, complaining, and balking.

In fact, the best demonstration of this parable from my own life may be from when my dad and I went fishing. My dad loved to fish, although he doesn’t go much any more, but I mostly just liked to ride on boats and considered cleaning fish the least attractive part of a day off. Needless to say, my track record for actually catching fish left a little to be desired. Dad kept telling me how to improve my fishing skills, but rather than listen to what he told me to do, I’d argue with him, do something else for an hour, and eventually take his advice half-heartedly — and then blame his advice if it didn’t work.

Actually, it’s a wonder that he didn’t dump me out of the boat altogether.

Neither son in this parable is a paragon of virtue. Even those who are “entering the kingdom of God” started off by balking at the Lord’s instructions. Contrast this with the ministry of Jesus, who does the Father’s will at every point, even when He knows the suffering He will have to endure for it. In Gethsemane, Jesus prays that the cup pass from His lips — but only if that is the will of the Father. He submits entirely to the Father’s will, not in a grumbling or half-hearted manner but fully committed to it. Jesus is neither of the sons in this parable.

However, that is part of the hopeful message Jesus gives us in this parable — that salvation is not for the perfect, but for the truly repentant. Redemption is still available for those who refuse the call of the Lord at first. The  who followed Jesus had taken a different path as a result of Jesus’ ministry. These prostitutes and tax collectors to whom Jesus referred had repented of their sin and come back into union with the will of the Father. They acknowledged their status as sinners and resolved to sin no more. Instead of arrogantly putting their own will and agenda to the forefront, they obeyed the will of the Father through Jesus. Thus, they had moved farther on the path of salvation — even if, as Jesus implies in the parable, they weren’t necessarily enthusiastic about it at first and may still have doubts or misgivings.

Now, one can imagine what the priests and elders thought of this parable.  Jesus was explicitly saying that the priests and elders were the second son of the parable — the hypocrite who deliberately said one thing while doing another. They sought honor and power for themselves, not to serve the people (as Jesus would rebuke them repeatedly during His ministry), and felt that simply stating their agreement with the Word was enough regardless of whether they abided by it or not.

The conclusion that tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to Heaven than the priests and elders were would have produced anger or laughter from that audience. Having been in leadership over Israel, they no doubt felt entitled to God’s favor, so hearing that prostitutes and tax collectors (who would be called collaborators in modern parlance, or even traitors to Israel) had precedence over them would have seemed monstrously unfair, and a deep insult to their dignity. However, our first reading from Ezekiel 18 addresses that idea of fairness. Israel in those days griped that the Lord had been unfair in dealing with Israel, to which the prophet delivered this rebuke:

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? 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, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

This rebuke almost perfectly parallels the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. Ezekiel tells Israel that they have been the second son in the parable — the one who agrees with the Father, but then ignores His instruction and wallows in iniquities rather than fulfill the mission the Father has for him. The Israelites see the consequences of this disobedience as unfair because they are too caught up in their own will and desires rather than coming into communion with the Lord. The Lord warned Ezekiel about this at the beginning of his ministry as a prophet in Ezekiel 2 and 3, repeatedly calling Israel a “rebellious house,” of “a hard forehead and stubborn heart,” and warning that Ezekiel should “be not afraid of their words.” The Lord also tells Ezekiel that he’d have an easier time dealing with “a people of foreign speech and a hard language … Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you,” a foreshadowing of the Great Commission to convert the world given by the risen Christ.

Even with that hardness of heart and rebellious nature, the Father continued to send prophets to Israel to woo them into the role of the first son. That culminates in the mission of Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection opened that path for all time to all people. What better news could sinners possibly get? We are called to worship and praise God and abide by His Word and His will. Being sinful, we will always suffer through the temptations of a fallen world, and may succumb to it on occasion. But even after those times when we balk at His will and petulantly refuse to obey His Word, we still have redemption and salvation open to us by renewing our commitment with Jesus Christ, and following His call for joyful toil in the vineyards for His harvest.

God never dumps us out of His boat. He just keeps telling us patiently to listen to His call, and hopes we eventually repent of our sinfulness and disobedience in order to find peace and eternal life. Heck, once we do that, we may even catch a few fish along the way, too.

The front page image is a detail from The Transfiguration by Raphael (1516-20).