The Parable of the Two Sons
Preacher: Mgr Patrick Burke, Vicar General, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of
St Andrews and Edinburgh
Readings: Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21: 23-32
It is, I think, 38 years since I arrived at this University to begin my academic career. I have the happiest memories and remain grateful for all that I learned and experienced here. I was a student of St. Marys and used to come regularly to Sallies Chapel on a Sunday. It was here that I learned a great respect for the Church of Scotland and a love of her forms of worship. So, I am very grateful for the invitation to return and am conscious of the great honour you do me!
The parable that we have just hears is the shortest of all the parables of Jesus and is found exclusively in Matthew. It comes towards the end of the Gospel. Jesus has completed his Galilean ministry and has returned to Jerusalem to face his passion and death. Just previously to the passage we read, Jesus re-entered the Holy City to the praise and acclamation of the crowds who spread palms in his way and sang Hosanna to the one who comes.
On the day after Palm Sunday Jesus entered the Temple and in a dramatic and provocative act threw the tax collectors and traders out of the Temple precinct accusing them of turning his Fathers House into a den of thieves.
The Chief Priests and Elders of the People – whose job it was to maintain the Temple – were naturally scandalised and appalled by the affrontery of Jesus. They confronted him in the Temple, in front of the people, and demanded to know by what authority he had acted in this way. In publicly challenging Jesus with this question, they thought that they had set a clever trap for Jesus. For if he responded by the authority of God – they could accuse him of blasphemy. Whereas, if he said by his own authority, they could accuse him of sedition and political agitation.
But Jesus, recognised their malice and (unusually) answered their question with another question. He said, “And I will answer your question with a question – the Baptism of John – was it from God or from man?” In this way he turned the tables of the Chief Priests and threw them onto the horns of a dilemma, for if they replied that it was from God – they would eb open to the question – then why did you not accept it and follow him. But if they said of man – they had the people to fear – for even the people could see that John was a great prophet.
So, in the verse directly preceding todays Gospel, they refuse to answer and Jesus says “and neither will I answer you.”
And then, beginning with the intriguing invitation “What do you think?” – he proposes this parable to them and to the crowd and indeed to us.
It is the first of a series of three parables that Jesus tells in rapid succession (the two sons, the wicked servants, and the wedding feast). All three deal with refusal (refusal to work, refusal to render the fruits of the harvest, refusal to come to the wedding) and all three point a finger at his interrogators (and us) as privileged persons in the religious sphere of things who should know better and who should behave better.
A parable, remember, is a story in which a comparison is made between an element in the story and an element in the audience – with out the audience actually realising. It is a clever way of making a point because it lulls the audience into a false sense of security – who therefore listen attentively to the story (without getting defensive) and draw conclusions without feeling threatened. It is only when they have drawn the intended conclusions that they realise (this time with a jolt) that the story is actually about them!
Todays parable is cast simply in terms of two sons. The father approaches the first and asks him to work in the vineyard. The son (abruptly and rudely) refuses (“I do not will it”) – but later thinks better of it and goes to work in the vineyard. The Father then goes to the second son and asks him exactly the same thing – to go and work in the vineyard. This son immediately (and graciously) agrees to work, but simply never bothers to go.
Neither son is what we would call a model of filial piety. Both leave a lot to be desired in their responses. But Jesus, nevertheless, asks the Chief Priests and Elders which of the two did the Father’s will. And they answer correctly – the first – for at least he did eventually do what the Father asked of him.
And only at this point does Jesus reveal the point of the story by abruptly and shockingly telling the Priests and Elders that even notorious sinners, like prostitutes and tax collectors, will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven before them!!
The shock of the denouement is lost on us, (a) because we have heard the story and (b) because we do not regard such people as proverbially wicked. Yet even we can sense the shock of the self-righteous priests as they realise that it is they who are being compared by Jesus with the second son and it is flagrant and notorious sinners who are being compared by Jesus with the semi-virtuous first son.
And in this way, in a pithy sentence, Jesus reveals the message of the parable which is simple but profound and which is as valid for us as today in Sallies Chapel as it was for those people in the Temple all those years ago. And it is this – that God actually prefers sinners, who in humility recognise their sins and seek to convert themselves, to the seemingly virtuous who despite the righteousness of their outward behaviour, are proud of heart and remain closed to God’s initiative in their lives.
The first reading (if you were listening to it) from Ezekiel has, in fact, much the same message as the parable. Royal officials had complained to Ezekiel that God was being unfair and was punishing the current (righteous) generation for the sins of their (unrighteous) fathers. That’s where that strange phrase comes from “The Fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”.
Ezekiel answers, in the passage that we heard, that God’s ways are not unfair. That God is not judging the people for the sins of their Fathers but on their own merits. And he warns them even a man of integrity can renounce goodness and commit sin and that if he does, he will be judged for that sin regardless of his previous good life.
The message of Ezekiel is, therefore, complimentary to the message of the Gospel and is, perhaps, not a bad message for us to ponder as we begin another academic year. And it is this, that while God’s love and support is always there for us, and while he never ceases to call us to repentance, nevertheless, each of us bears the responsibility of our own actions and that if a person turns freely against God, God cannot and will not force the human heart to change. We cannot, in other words, rely on the good deeds of our past lives to save us, rather as children of God we must in our daily lives here and now strive always to choose what is good and what is true, and to reject was is false and what is destructive. And in this way continue to grow in our love of God each day.
Notwithstanding the strange times in which we are living, I wish you all a good term and a good year and indeed every blessing.
Mgr Patrick Burke
Vicar General, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh