Today Jesus enters a conflict zone and will stay there for several Sundays. Our gospel, like that of next Sunday and the Sunday after, is no longer addressed to his admiring disciples but rather to the chief priests and the elders of the people. He does not pull his punches. By way of parables he insinuates their historic and actual lack of faithfulness to God.
But rather than enjoy their discomfort at his words, let us consider what today’s parable might be saying to us, and attempt to read it psychologically. We have three characters: a father and his two sons. The father addresses the sons with the bald title Son. The Greek word used requires a little more intimacy: perhaps “my son” would be better. It is certain that God addresses each of us with a similar comforting possessiveness. The first son’s reply is abrupt, almost petulant; it literally means “I don’t want to”. He shows little fear of the father. And the father does not pursue the matter. The second son’s reply is positive but less honest: it seems he is not willing to risk his father’s anger. On the basis of interchange, who has the better relationship with the father? Maybe the first son. Perhaps in our prayer we should tell God exactly what we are thinking, rather than what we think he wants to hear.
The first son, while blunt, has a sense of responsibility. The second, while flattering, does not. Jesus has little time for what Shakespeare calls “the glib and oily art”. He has already told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7:21). He makes the same point again in our parable. It’s not what we say that matters. Remember the popular phrase “put your money where your mouth is”. Or, in the language of the gospel, you will know them by their fruits (Mt 7:20).
Of the two sons, the Lord is telling us to be like the first rather than the second, because what matters is doing God’s will rather than saying we’ll do it. Jesus does not, however, take the parable further and consider an even better way: to say you’ll do it, and then to actually do it. This is the integrity of word and action, where the word of promise is true, and the word is truly implemented.
In the language of John’s gospel, Jesus Christ is the given Word of God who carries out what it promises. He himself is the parable of an even better way, and he is the one we must try to imitate: not the second son, nor even the first, but the Son himself.
By Fr Edmund Power osb