Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
It might appear that our liturgy, and the Gospel of Matthew in particular, is simply continuing the themes we have been speaking about for several weeks. Indeed, the contrast of the two sons in today’s parable seems strikingly familiar, typical of the kind of teaching that Jesus always uses. This is an instance, however, where the context of the story is enormously important.
While we are only one chapter number away from last weekend’s gospel (Matt. 20:1-16), it is important to recognize how much has happened in those intervening verses: Jesus speaks of his Passion and Resurrection a third time, teaches the mother of James and John what being “first” is all about, cures two blind men in Jericho, triumphantly enters Jerusalem where he will die, cleansed the Temple, spent the night with friends in Bethany, curses a fig tree because it doesn’t bear fruit, and is challenged by the religious authorities about his teaching. It is that challenge by the chief priests and elders which is important, for it is here that this uniquely Matthean parable is placed. The very Jewish Gospel of Matthew is suggesting that the second son in the parable is the Jewish people, in particular the Scribes and the Pharisees, who profess to follow God’s teachings by their fidelity to the precepts of the Law, but who actually fail to put into practice that which is most important, that which God has revealed and shared with them. Jesus and his disciples are now at that geographical point where all of their journeys were headed, and Jesus’ parable is pointed at those who will put him to death, those who squandered the blessed opportunity that was theirs as the chosen people. “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you,” Jesus tells them, because they have heard the call to do what is right, and they amended their lives for the better. The religious leaders of the day, with great pride, pointed to their observance of the Law, but they failed to do “what is right” by not loving as they should. They failed to put into practice the kindness, forgiveness, patience, acceptance, humility, and compassion that Jesus, and the prophets, had called them to exercise.
Of course the parable is, through the work of the Holy Spirit, not only addressed to the Jewish people, but to us as well, and here, too, the context of the liturgy helps us to understand it more fully. The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel attempts to correct the Jewish understanding that people can suffer or be punished for the sins of others, parents in particular. Ezekiel does not see that as “the Lord’s way,” for individuals are responsible for their own lives, and, more importantly, for their own salvation. If they turn away from “wickedness” and do “what is right and just” they will preserve their life, no matter when that decision was made. We, too, are responsible for our own lives and salvation. When we are called to do what is right and just, we must do it.
Usually a parable compels us to choose to be one person or another. We hear the parable and we are meant to choose which servant you want to be, choose what son you want to be. In today’s parable we shouldn’t necessarily want to be either son, for we are meant to strive to hear God’s call to do what is right and just, to respond generously, and to live our lives practicing what we profess and preach. We are not meant to be men and women who profess with our lips what our faith calls us to without practicing on a daily basis what we believe. We do know, however, as our readings illustrate, that if in fact we fail to practice what we preach, that there is always time to amend our lives, to turn towards the merciful Lord and ask for forgiveness. As St. Paul says we are meant to have “the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” an attitude of humble obedience, that does “nothing out of selfishness or out of vain glory,” but humbly “regards others as more important.”
Our Lord has called us to do what is right and just. May we never underestimate the challenge of doing what is right. May we not be like the first son who said no to his father’s plea for help, and may we not be like the second son who says yes to his father but just cannot seem to ever get around to doing anything. May we be men and women who hear God’s call and generously respond by living lives that mirror that of our Lord and Savior, for “good and upright is the Lord; he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps. 25:8-9)