Ez 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32
A Non-Catholic Minister recently quit the ministry after more than 20 years of faithful, dedicated service and became a funeral director. When asked why he had changed vocations, he said: “I spent 10 years trying to straighten out John and he’s still an alcoholic. Then I spent three and one-half years trying to straighten out Harold and Susan’s marriage problems and they ended up getting a divorce. Later I tried for two years to help Bob kick his drug habit and he is still an addict. Now, at the funeral home, when I straighten them out, they stay straight! Perfect obedience!”
An owner of a vineyard had two sons and neither one of them was perfect. The first son said “no” to his father, but then changed his mind and did what his father asked. The second son said “yes” to his father’s request but did nothing. A perfect son would have said “yes to his father and then done the father’s will. But few of us are perfect. That is why, for us, the hero of today’s parable is the first son, who originally said “no” but then changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. The good news of the parable is that with God’s help, we can change a “no” into a “yes.”
This movement from “no” to “yes” is a fundamental Christian pattern that is routinely present in the Scriptures. Peter denies Jesus, but later repents. Thomas refuses to accept Jesus’ resurrection, but then becomes a believer. Paul persecutes the early followers of Jesus, but then converts and becomes one of the great apostles of the church. In later generations, this same movement continues. Augustine lived his early life in debauchery, but then became one the great spiritual teachers of our history. Francis of Assisi began his life in privilege and self-indulgence but then changed to live a life of simplicity and service.
We need not be ashamed of moving from “no” to “yes.” Whenever we follow that pattern, we find ourselves in very good company. But if we are going to follow this basic Christian movement, we must start by admitting our denial. We must begin by owning that there are ways in which we say “no,” ways in which we are flawed, ways in which we need to change.
None of us stay the same. All of us are changing. Some of us are getting taller; others are getting shorter. Some people are losing weight; others are putting it on. Some of us are getting richer; most of us are getting poorer. Some of us are developing, increasing in our skills and abilities; others are finding their skills are diminishing. None of us stay the same. The same thing is true of our spiritual life, because our faith is not a set of concepts which we can memorize and then know forever. Our faith is a relationship, a living relationship with God. Therefore, that relationship is either growing or it is diminishing. It is increasing in strength or it is fading.
Now it’s possible to see the parable in today’s gospel in this light. The two sons in the gospel stand for the two directions of the spiritual life: one moving closer to God’s will, the other moving away from it. The first son starts poorly. He refuses to do what the father asks. But in time he comes around and does the father’s will. The other son begins well. He says that he will do what is asked. But he does not follow through and ends in failure.
Each one of us, at every moment of our life, is following the direction of one son or the other. We are either becoming more the person that God wants us to be, or we are moving away from that goal. There is a principle in the spiritual life which states, “Unless you are moving forward, you are falling backward.” It is impossible simply to maintain our faith. We just cannot hold on to it as it is today. Our relationship with God is either growing or it is falling backward.
Now of course all of us in our life have times when our faith falls backwards, when we fail, when we doubt, when we struggle in our relationship with God. But with God’s grace we can recover from such failures.
Unless we are growing, we are slipping back. What you do not use, you lose. There are not three sons. There is not a son who just stands still. There are only two sons, and each one of them is moving: one closer to God’s will and one away from it. We are always following one son or the other. So the wise person chooses to increase the momentum of growth. The faithful disciple chooses to be thankful, to serve, to deepen the understanding of God’s love today. Now is the time to act. Now is the day to build our relationship with God.