A priest friend was telling me how during the time of heavy rains in his town because of which many people lost a lot of their belongings, he made an appeal during his Sunday homily for people to come and help him reach out to those who were affected by the rains. When he asked people to raise their hands to indicate if they would come about 70% of the 500 people present raised their hands. He fixed the following Saturday as the day on which they would go out to help. When the day came, five people actually turned up. They said, but did not do. They had words but no action.
There is an intimate connection between all three readings of today. In the reading from Ezekiel, the prophet calls the people to realize that it is not God’s ways that are unfair but their own. He asks the people to grow up and accept responsibility for their actions and not lay the blame on God’s door. It is a person’s wrongdoing that leads to his or her condemnation. It is not God who punishes or condemns, but punishment is the consequence or result of a person’s wrong doing. The ones who persist in their evil ways condemn themselves. Ezekiel’s portrayal is of a generous and forgiving God who wants everyone to come back to him. Anyone who turns back to God will be accepted and forgiven.
This theme of acceptance and forgiveness is expounded on by Matthew in the Gospel text of today when he summarizes at the end of the Parable of the two sons that those who turn to God after renouncing their former evil ways will indeed be saved. This turning to God has to be a turning that is shown in action and not mere words. The parable is unique to Matthew’s Gospel and can be seen to be divided into two clear parts. This first of these is the parable itself and the second is its application. Before interpreting the Parable it is important to understand the immediate context. It is placed in the Gospel almost immediately after Jesus has entered the temple in Jerusalem and “cleansed” it. This action leads the chief priests and elders of the people to question Jesus’ authority and in responding to them, Jesus points to the baptism of John as the source of his authority. It is in this context that the Parable is told and the audience continues to be the chief priests and the elders. It brings out powerfully the fact that these who just questioned Jesus’ authority are themselves rejecting the kingdom.
The first son after initially refusing his father’s request which was culturally unacceptable afterwards does go and do what his father asks. Thus his initial refusal is followed by eventual obedience. The second son not only agrees to go but also reinforces this agreement by addressing his father as “Lord”. However, he does not go and his initial agreement is followed by eventual disobedience. Though the answer to Jesus’ question as to which son did the will of the father is obvious and the Jewish leaders answer correctly, what shocks and offends them is the application that Jesus makes. They are compared with the son who was ready with words and even words of respect, but with what remained mere empty words. Though God spoke to them through the Law and numerous prophets, they had merely heard and not obeyed. The tax collectors and prostitutes on the other hand, who are likened to the first son, are the ones who are entering the kingdom and receiving salvation because they dared to do so even though they may have initially refused to listen.
The second reading from Philippians provides the Christological foundation of such conversion. Jesus himself is the model of the truly obedient son, who says yes to his Father in the most radical and action oriented way. His actions match his words. There is no dichotomy. In this he goes one better than the first son in not only doing but also saying. The initial verses of the hymn explode with verbs of action. Jesus did not grasp at equality with God; he emptied himself; he took on the form of a slave; he came in human likeness; he was obedient to the point of enduring the ignominy of death in one of the most shameful of ways: on a cross. This is the attitude that true followers of Jesus are challenged to adopt. In the second half of the hymn, the verbs then shift. God becomes now the actor or doer exalting Jesus and giving him a name above every name. God shows through the self sacrificing act of Jesus, the meaning and consequence of doing his will. Doing the will of the Father, for Jesus, was more than simply a matter of words; it is always a matter of deeds. It is one thing to say one does or will do the will of the Father; it is another thing to actually do it. Words alone mean nothing. Appropriate and relevant action, accompanying the words, is the way of a true disciple of Jesus.
Matthew’s application of the parable to his community has special power today. Both perennial and recent problems summon the church to a depth of integrity that is expressed in deeds, not fine words. The church is also always a community of forgiven sinners and the repentance that the texts of today call for must be interpreted not as a “being sorry” for sin, but a radical change of heart, mind and vision. This change can only be regarded as a change if it shows itself in the radical act of denying self and reaching out to everyone in need. It is true that there will be times when, like the first son, we may say an initial “I will not”, but when we dare to look at the example of Christ that continues to shine brightly before us, we are challenged to imitate him and have that same mind and heart. We are called to realize, like him, that if we dare to open ourselves to obedience, even though it might not seem at first glance as the best option, we too like him will conquer death and be that example which the world so badly needs today.