Jesus takes up once more the theme of workers for the vineyard, and today our attention is centred on the attitude of two brothers called to work in their father’s vineyard.
What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will? They answered, “The first.”
There, as you heard, one of the brothers answered his father with respectful words but did not go to work as promised; the other, on the contrary, began with a blunt refusal and then, changed his mind, and went to work in the vineyard. We are not told how long it took the latter to change his mind; so, he might have gone almost immediately into his father's vineyard, regretting his disrespectful outburst, or his change of mind and heart might have taken some time, so that he went into the vineyard at perhaps the sixth, the ninth, or even the eleventh hour. That is a possible link with last week's parable.
The teaching of today’s parable, however, is very close to the heart of Jesus because it concerns “doing the will of the Father”:
"Which of the two did his father’s will?" Jesus asked.
Jesus, you will recall, once told us the whole purpose of His coming on earth:
I have come down from heaven not to do My will but to do the will of Him Who sent Me. (John 6:38)
That was not merely a dutiful expression of filial awareness, it was the central pillar of His everyday experience of life on earth: in the agonizing moments of His suffering in the Garden which caused Him to sweat blood, He repeated the same words to strengthen Himself in His need:
Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not My will but Yours be done. (Luke 22:42)
Moreover, that same attitude is the essence of the only prayer He taught us, which is, ultimately, the only prayer we need:
Our Father Who art in heaven; hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
For all, therefore, who want to become true disciples of Jesus, our life as Christians is not simply a matter of carrying out a share of work in the master’s vineyard, but rather of a journey being undertaken with a loving desire to become one with Jesus for the Father, Who is ever inviting us to find our ultimate fulfilment as His obedient children.
Presuming we have such a desire, how are we, in fact, going to set about doing His will on earth and attaining our salvation in His presence in heaven?
Let me first of all clear up a possible misunderstanding resulting from the first reading. To be sure, it is not a mistake that would easily be made by any sincere disciple of the Lord; but if someone were going through difficulties or was only half-hearted in their faith, those words of Ezekiel in our first reading might be thought to signal an easy way out:
If a wicked man, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.
The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, for example, did think that he could postpone deciding about conversion and the good life until death was at hand, and then, “turn away from wickedness” and be baptized, so as then to be prepared to die with an absolutely ‘clean slate’ so to speak.
However, in such a case, the apparent conversion would only be finally acted out after the penitent had, necessarily , long put up with his inevitable daily faults and failings, and pandered to his ever-recurring weakness and sins. As for any interim protestations of love for the Lord, when put to the test they could hardly have fared any better than Herod’s reverence for John the Baptist. Moreover, Ezekiel’s very words would not seem to give any encouragement to such worldliness, for he did say “turn away and do what is right and just”: a death-bed conversion, quite literally the fag end of a life, cannot be thought a suitable opportunity for doing anything at all, let alone what is right and just.
And so, whilst it is, indeed, never too late to mend; and whilst it is always possible -- in whatever situation one might find oneself -- to turn to God our Father and find forgiveness in the name of Jesus, nevertheless, it is absolutely essential that we turn to the Father in sincerity of heart.
And so, St. Paul tells us in the second reading just how we should set about sincerely trying to do the Father’s will, with a ready response to His call:
Have the same attitude that also Christ Jesus had.
And at this point, people of a fundamentalist turn of mind might well say: “All that is necessary is to read the Scriptures and do what Jesus did”.
Let us just look rationally at those two bits of advice. “We must do what Jesus did or would have done.” How can we do that? Jesus lived on earth two thousand years ago, His circumstances were not the same as ours today. And what is infinitely more, Jesus, with His sublime understanding of people and of the workings of divine grace, sometimes did things, spoke words, which we -- having only a sin-stained appreciation of our fellow men, together with a native ignorance of the workings of divine grace -- would not dare to say or ever think of doing.
"All we need to do is to read the Scriptures and do what Jesus did." Indeed! Who would dare to say with Jesus: "It is not fair to give the children’s food to dogs” to a woman begging for her daughter’s healing? Or again, what doctor or nurse, or anyone who could help, would treat dear friends, as Jesus, in His supreme love and divine wisdom, treated Mary, Martha and Lazarus:
When He heard that (Lazarus) was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was. (John 11:6)
Let us therefore recall and try to learn the truths contained in the Apostle's teaching:
Have the same attitude (of mind and heart) that also Christ Jesus had.
We cannot 'do what Jesus would have done', until we have, in truth, the same attitude as Jesus; and that can only come about by the gift of the Spirit, for it was the Spirit Who led Jesus. Now, the Spirit of Jesus is not given to any of us either fully or permanently, nor is He given to all of us in the same degree. The Holy Spirit of Jesus is given in sublime and abiding fullness to Mother Church so that she can make her children members of the Body of Christ in which all have a personal purpose and role to fulfil for that Body and for the glory of the Father. Therefore, our first and supreme duty, in order to learn and to do the Father’s will, is to hear and obey Jesus’ clear commandments given for all those who would love Him and want to be his disciples, commandments passed down to us in the Scriptures and in the authoritative teaching of Mother Church. Now we can all do that thanks to the baptismal grace of the Holy Spirit given by Jesus to all who believe in Him. Such essential obedience is the minimum required of a true disciple.
However, in order to have the same attitude as Jesus, and do the Father’s particular will for each one of us, we must, in sincerity of heart, pray much more. By enabling us to obey the commandments of Jesus and the Church, the Spirit can be said to rule our actions. Nevertheless, most of our choices in life do not directly or necessarily involve sin: they are predominantly indifferent choices of themselves, and if we aspire to have the same attitude as Jesus and do the Father’s will in all things big and small, we must ask, beg, pray the Holy Spirit to not only rule our actions so as to keep us from sin, but also to guide our lives in every respect to the extent that it is no longer we who live, but rather -- through the Spirit – Jesus Himself living more and more in us for the Father, as St. Paul said (Galatians 2:20):
It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.
The Spirit is Jesus’ Gift, Jesus' bequest, to us in Mother Church; He is not ours, He cannot be gotten, so to speak, and then possessed. Because He is the Gift, we have to keep going to the Father in prayer, and to Jesus in the Eucharist, to receive the Spirit anew, the Gift in ever greater abundance. Moreover, since He is the Gift we must constantly be trying to live up to, we must therefore beg the Holy Spirit Himself, in our prayers, to penetrate our being every more deeply, so that He might guide and rule us, not only in our rejection of sin, but also in our free choices and deep desires, until He has ultimately formed us – mind and heart -- as His faithful instruments, for the Father’s glory. In other words, we should beg the Spirit to make each of us a likeness of Jesus painted by His own living hand, in and for our world of today, not an inauthentic or blasphemous imitation of what happened in the past, nor a product of merely human cogitation, expressing personal pride and based on current popular, trendy, thinking.
Therefore, taking the words of St. Paul to ourselves in all sincerity let us humbly pray that we may become true sons and daughters of the God Who calls us; and that, through our Spirit-led actions and the Spirit-formed attitude of mind and heart, we may help in some way, small indeed, but nevertheless positive measure to bring it about that:
All, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, may (come to) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Dear People of God, today’s parable is, again, unique to St. Matthew and perhaps we can glean some inkling of why he may have seriously wanted it to be well-remembered, by his telling us of the following words of Jesus which St. Luke also recalls (vv. 31-2):
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.
Matthew, Mark and Luke, were as one in their memories of Jesus until Matthew chose to insert today’s Gospel parable of the two sons and their father, along with the words which we have just heard. Why?
Apparently Matthew wanted the former Pharisees of his congregation to remember those last words of Jesus because, after having strongly underlined the repentance of the younger son in His foregoing parable, those additional words also emphasize anew the importance and ‘power for good’ of repentance in the lives of Christians, this time the repentance of the tax-collectors (Matthew himself was one!) and prostitutes on their having heard the Good News proclaimed by Jesus of the Kingdom of God. Matthew was determined that his Christian congregation should never forget the wondrous gift of the spirit of repentance which they themselves had embraced when so many of their former fellows refuse to accept that gift of God!
Dear People of God there are ‘attitudes’ which can be characteristic of individuals and of peoples resulting from their birth and/or development before God, and which it is essential for those individuals and people to remember with deep gratitude in their hearts, and to express most definitely and sincerely in their lives. For Matthew, the former publican himself, and for all the former Pharisees of his Christian congregation, that most beautiful remembrance of humble repentance should never be allowed to wither away in their hearts due to lack of gratitude to God for such a gracious gift. God’s gifts are many and varied: some are glorious, some tragic, some inspiring, others humbling, but however varied in their multiplicity answering to our many, many human needs, all, however, are sublimely beautiful and fulfilling for those on whom they are bestowed.
Our sinful world seeks to replace God and His gifts of Faith, Hope, and Charity by the three human values of liberty, fraternity, and equality; and, as we learn from experience, in that process, the variety and vivacity of moral beauty is lost, the calming peace and power of complementarity in human life is misunderstood, while liberty and equality are highly valued in no small measure because of their modern, unquestionable, travelling companions: libido and licence.