The Parable of the Father and his Two Sons, Pencz 1536, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA.
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Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you”. Matthew 21:31.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Jesus was never someone to hold back on what he was thinking. That quotation above was spoken directly to the “chief priests and elders of the people”, according to Matthew. They would be the instigators of the crowd baying for his blood later, and today’s gospel gives a little background to explain that. It must have taken Jesus some courage to speak like that, and he did it no doubt in the hope that they would take it to heart, pray over it and come up with the explanation of why on earth he said it at all. In his explanatory parable, one son, on hearing his father’s order to go work in the vineyard stated baldly “I will not”. The other son said he would do what his father wanted. However, the first son changed his mind and went to work. The other did not go and work. Clearly the first son, despite his declaration, changed his mind and obeyed his father. The other obviously did not. As ever with parables, there is symbolism. As with last week’s story about the vineyard owner, the vineyard is the world, and the father’s order is the vocation each son receives, to work in that vineyard, the world. One agrees but does not follow his vocation; the other says no, but does, indeed, fulfill his father’s will. Jesus then recalled the ministry of John the Baptist which attracted crowds of people from Jerusalem to go out and hear him. He preached repentance and renewal, the acknowledgement of sinfulness and the determination to remedy that. Jesus’ prostitutes and tax collectors (remember tax collectors are the excommunicated Jews who, in collaborating with the pagan Romans, had forfeited their place in Jewish society) accepted John’s exhortations, and reformed their lives. The chief priests and elders did not see any of John’s words as applying to themselves: they were above all that. That is Jesus’ point. They were the ones supposedly leading the people in the way of God’s justice and truth and hence should have taken John’s words to heart and led the people in that same repentance for sins – we are all sinners in the eyes of a perfect God. They were the ones who had said “yes” to God but had done nothing to implement his will, to fulfill their vocation; the tax collectors and prostitutes had said “no” judging from their way of life chasing the wrong vocation, but had reformed themselves and were now obeying God’s law.
I suspect we all have a little of both in our lives, and little bit of “yes” and a little bit of “no”, and we might be tempted to say “I’m only human”. But that would be quite a sinful thing to do and to say. To be human is to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), in whom there is no sin, no stain. Jesus was human through and through, and he, although tempted, did not sin. That is to be fully human; anything less is to be less than human. Today’s numinous second reading pushes this to its limit concerning the Lord: He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, because if he had not, and had betrayed his own vocation to fulfill God’s word, would have been the ultimate betrayal of God. All of us, however, have fallen into that sub-human state, even the greatest saints. To acknowledge that is to have taken the first step in rectifying the situation, to regain our humanity in all its glory as God’s forgiveness is infinitely generous. I read a news story recently about the construction of a building. Problems resulted when some of the building material weakened and became unsafe, whereas some of the same material showed no such weakness. It was a mystery until it was found that the material which had been stored in very damp conditions, even if only overnight, had absorbed enough moisture for it to become weak before being installed (a classic case of being in the wrong company?). That material which had been used immediately on arrival at the building site was perfect. So the same material was both “sinful” and “graceful”. A little “sin” here was sufficient to destroy the whole plan if it had been undetected, or did not have a John the Baptist to alert us to the consequences of its/our fallen nature, a nature meant to be perfect, and should be. Remember an old, somewhat adapted, saying, “great mortal sin from little venial sins grow.” We need a call now and then to remind us and redeem us for falling from our graceful, beautiful human nature to a lesser, inhuman, state. Jesus’ warning to the elders and chief priests should have been sufficient for them to see what was called for, but they ignored it. However, the stone that they rejected became the cornerstone…..
Psalm 118:22-23, Isaiah 28:16, Ephesians 2:20, 1 Peter 2:6-8.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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