“I already have a spouse, and I will not offend him by pretending that another might please me. I will give myself only to him who first chose me. So, executioners, what are you waiting for?” – St. Agnes, martyr
Matthew 21:28-32: ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today. He answered, I will not go, but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, Certainly, sir, but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’
Christ the Lord Christ beats Israel’s best sophists at their own game. This interchange takes place in Jerusalem right after the chief priests and the elders of the people had tried to trap Jesus in his own words by asking him the origin of his authority. Jesus deflects their attack, and turns the tables, so that they end up accusing themselves of infidelity to God.
Jesus Christ is more than a quick-witted debater. He is the Lord, the Word of God; his teaching “comes from above” (John 8:23) and ought to be accepted. The Church has never asked its children to have blind faith, to believe in Christ’s words without good reasons, but it has always asked her to have healthy faith, to believe in Christ’s words even when reason cannot completely explain them. Can a five-year-old child understand why he must eat beans and rice as well as candy and ice cream? Hardly, but he knows that his mother loves him, so he trusts that her menu will serve him well. Likewise, when we approach the Lord and his Church, we come not as his equals, but as his beloved and loving followers.
Faith means trusting in someone else’s authority. The Pharisees trusted only in themselves, so they closed their minds first to John the Baptist’s preaching, and then to Christ’s. They even closed their minds to the results of this preaching: the conversion of sinners. We can never truly encounter Christ the Lord unless we are open to becoming his subjects.
Christ the Teacher This parable’s lesson supposes that doing God’s will is always the best course of action, a premise accepted by all parties in the discussion. Because we live in a secularized society that does not share this premise, it will be useful to take a quick look at it.
Usually, we determine the best course of action by first applying our own personal analysis and standards. Then, if what the Church or our superiors teach happens to be in agreement with our judgment, we accept it. If it doesn’t, we tend to question them rather than ourselves. The Christian attitude should be exactly the opposite; it recognizes the weakness and limits of human nature (and therefore of oneself), and seeks to align its judgment with the assurance of God’s revelation in Christ. It lets the warm and gentle sunlight of faith brighten the shadows cast by the quivering lamplight of natural reason. The result, as the unparalleled flowering of human thought in the Christian West evidences, is certainty without close-mindedness, understanding without cynicism, and confidence without arrogance.
The actual lesson of the parable follows this premise. If God’s will is the best course of action, who is more worthy of praise – those who promise to fulfill it or those who really do fulfill it? Jesus despised hypocrisy more than almost every other sin. He called those who preach the truth but live falsely “whitewashed tombs, serpents, brood of vipers, blind guides” (Matthew 23). He went so far as to declare that salvation depends precisely on what we do, not merely on what we say or believe: “It is not those who say to me, Lord, Lord, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). St James put it quite bluntly, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Neither son in the parable treated his father with due respect and obedience, just as neither hypocrisy nor greed and lust (the sins associated with tax collectors and prostitutes) please God, but clearly the one who “changed his mind” (with all the humiliation and humility that entailed) and went into the fields cheered his father’s heart more than the other. Even if we tend to grumble at God’s will when first we discover it, we can make his heart rejoice if we obey.
Christ the Friend As followers of Christ, we can easily relish scenes like this for the wrong reasons: we like it when our Leader defeats his opponents. But Jesus cared little for such vain victories; he told this parable hoping to stir the consciences of those who needed to repent. He told this parable because he desperately wanted the chief priests and leaders of the people to “enter the Kingdom of heaven,” and so far they were not doing so. Christ always has our ultimate good in mind. He seeks not his own glory and “success,” but only the glory of his Father, which shines most brightly in the salvation of souls. Would that we followed more closely in the footsteps of our Friend!
Christ in My Life Have you been trying to tell me something, Lord? Have I been deaf to your message, like the Pharisees, because I am too attached to my own ideas, my own desires? I want to follow you. I want to love you. I want to know you better. Teach me to do your will…
Sometimes I am like the older son, and then there are times when I am like the younger son, but I want to be like you, the perfectly faithful Son. Thank you for always forgiving me and giving me another chance. I know your will for me: my responsibilities, my conscience, my commitments, your commandments, your Church’s teaching. To make your Kingdom come, I have only to make your will be done…
You went out of your way to convince the Pharisees and chief priests to follow you. Throughout your whole ministry they resisted, and yet you never stopped reaching out to them through your miracles, your teachings, your discussions, and your parables. Give me that same zeal and charity to bring those around me closer to you. With the love of your heart, inflame my heart…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.