“The difference between saying and doing” – Reflection and Lectio Divina

Reflection for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
entitled “The difference between saying and doing” by Fr John Campion, Salesian.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 21, 28-32

We know well that God speaks to us through the Gospel, but we do not always see ourselves reflected in the hard words of today’s Gospel passage, words that Jesus spoke to the authorities of his time. They were alarmed, if not deeply offended, at hearing that publicans and prostitutes were ahead of them on the journey towards the kingdom of God. What right did Jesus have to say that public sinners were closer to God than the most devout faithful? What use is it, then, trying to be good if the wicked get preference? Was Jesus perhaps mistaken when he said that sinners are ahead of the just in their journey towards God?

At that time: Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  29 And he answered, `I will not'; but afterward he repented and went. 30 And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.

I  Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

To understand this parable and especially its application, we need to bear in mind the occasion and the motive that prompted it. Jesus had entered Jerusalem triumphantly (Mt 21 8-11) and immediately made his presence felt with an unusual gesture. He drove the buyers and sellers out of the temple and this led, obviously, to their questioning his authority for doing so (Mt 21,23). Jesus silenced his challengers by questioning them about John the Baptist and his mission. When they were unable to answer, he told them a parable (Mt 21,28-31a) and applied it to them. (Mt 21,31b-32). The key to understanding the passage lies not so much in the parable as in the final comment. The whole episode was disconcerting and offensive to his listeners who were the legitimate authorities of the country.

The parable is based on experience. Within the family sons do not always give their father due respect, honour and obedience.  It is the exercise of filial obedience that distinguishes the son from the slave. In the family referred to by Jesus, one son declared himself ready to do what his father wanted, but he did not do it. Being a son is not just a matter of saying yes or no.  It means doing the father’s will, working in the vineyard.  Love is seen in actions, not words.  Jesus’ listeners would have agreed readily with this conclusion.

To their surprise, however, Jesus goes on to condemn them strongly, and he leaves no room for appeal. The very people who said no to God, people living publicly in sin, are ahead of them on their way to God. This reversal of the expectations of “good people” seems gratuitous and unacceptable. What determined closeness to God and the assurance of reaching the Kingdom was acceptance of John the Baptist’s message.  It did not matter that they were not worthy, if public sinners believed the message of God, that was enough for God to consider them his own, and indeed the first among his own.  Would that the “just” might consider this at least, and be converted and believe!

II   Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

Jesus compares God to a father who had two sons, one apparently disobedient and the other apparently well disposed. His question to the Jewish leaders is superfluous – they know that only those who do the father’s will are loved as sons. The application that follows could not be more pointed or more severe. Sinners are ahead of those who consider themselves just. People that everyone recognises as sinners will enter the Kingdom of God before those who are considered holy. Doing no evil does not make someone good. People who refuse to be converted because they do not think they need conversion, or because they do not feel ready for it yet, will not escape condemnation. The warning follows as a consequence. People are not good in the eyes of God because of what they say, but only if they do God’s will. To behave as children of God, we must do the will of the Father in heaven.

To understand Jesus’ position, we need to see it as a comment on the parable that he has just related. A man wants his two sons to work in his vineyard. Strangely, the one who first refuses to follow orders is the only one who does it in the end. The one who said that he was willing to go right away, did not go to work. The father who owned the vineyard had two sons, but, in reality, he could count on only one of them, the one who, contrary to appearances and in spite of his earlier decision, actually did what his father wanted.  The true son is seen, not by what he said to his father, but because he did what his father wanted him to do.

This is the story as told by Jesus. After the story, the question he put to the Jewish leaders was unnecessary. We all know that only the one who does the father’s will is a true son. The son is the one who freely obeys his father. It is true that refusing to obey the father’s command causes offence.  A refusal to obey shows a lack of respect and filial obedience. But his refusal did not mean that he did not do what his father wanted him to do.  Far more serious was the failure of the one who promised to go but did not go. He showed respect when he accepted his father’s command, but when he failed to do what he said he would do, he was not true to his word and so committed a double offence.  Both sons said one thing and did the opposite. But the only one who went against his father was the one who did not do what he was commanded.  It was wrong to refuse the father’s wish, but refusing to do what was promised was even more unpardonable. The God of Jesus is more forgiving of a word of refusal than of failure to do what is commanded. He overlooks a wrong word or gesture more readily than failure to do his will.

Jesus tells the story of the father who owned a vineyard as an image of God and us, his children. Like the vineyard owner, God also has some sons who are satisfied with saying they will obey, and others who, after refusing at first, go on later to do what he wants of them. Jesus says that God shows a preference for people who may appear to be bad. They seem to enjoy priority in the kingdom. We have to take Jesus’ warning seriously. Some people who are regarded by all as sinners will enter the kingdom of God ahead of others who are regarded as saints. Some people may think they are good just because they promise repeatedly that one day they will do what God wants of them, but that does not make them good in the eyes of God. Promising to be better tomorrow does not make us good today. The goodness that God wants to see in his people is rooted in good works and not just in promises.

Like the owner of the vineyard, God is not satisfied with good will or pious wishes. A good son does not put off to another day what God wants him to do today. We do not become better by the promises we make, no matter how good they may be, but by the things we actually do, even if they are somewhat less good. God will pardon all our previous refusals provided, at the end of the day, we do what he wants us to do. Nobody is justified in God’s eyes by what he says. Only those who do God’s will are justified. God puts more value on what we do than on what we say. It does not matter to him if we answer badly, provided we do what he wants us to do. Even in our day, sinners and prostitutes may be closer to the kingdom of God than so-called good people. This may sound untrue, but it is what Jesus said.

If the people we regard as sinners are preferred to those who have been good all their lives, then there is no sin that cannot be forgiven. This is tremendous news! However, the bad news is that there is no goodness that cannot one day be lost. Jesus consoles us today if we feel we owe God something, as long as we have the will to do what he wants. But God takes note of when we are feeling complacent and at peace with ourselves, even if we have not done what we promised to do.  Not always living up to the demands of his will does not constitute an irredeemable disaster, nor does refusing sometimes, maybe even often, to do his will, provided we accept his wishes for us as our rule of life and decide to do the work he has entrusted to us. It would be a real disaster, however, if we persisted in thinking we were good Christians, but failed to do with our hands what we said with our lips.  The disobedient son was not the one who said no, but then went on to do what his father wanted.

It is interesting that Jesus calls to conversion people that we think are already good, and praises those that we think are not so good.  Only people who know that they are unworthy in the eyes of God can begin the journey of conversion. Those who fool themselves into thinking they are deserving, will do little to go in search of God.  If they think they already possess God, they are not likely to acknowledge their need of him. Taking for granted that we belong to God and possess him could well prove to be a sure way of losing him. As in the days of John the Baptist, it is only those who recognize their faults and acknowledge their sins, who experience God’s presence in their lives and know that they are loved by him.

We lose the best of God’s gifts if we think we are already good enough. Because we know we are his sons, we may be inclined to think we do not have to do his will. Then we become so used to forgetting about God that we do not reflect on the evil we do. If we are not concerned that God can no longer depend on us to do his work, and think little of refusing to do his will, then those we think worse than us will get into the kingdom of God ahead of us.  It is not Jesus’ intention to praise those who do wrong, but to remind those who think they are good that the father wanted to send both sons into his vineyard. God demands conversion of all his children, good and bad. He is pleased only with those who do his will, whether we consider them good or bad. Because he is our Father we cannot fool ourselves into thinking we can do what we like. The fact that he is our Father does not automatically make us his beloved children. We must be careful not to risk losing his fatherly love and our eternal salvation.