Matthew 21: 28-32
Fr. John Tran
The first reading from Ezekiel give a very similar message to today’s gospel from Matthew. In a sense, there are no heroes in these readings, no great role models for us to follow. If anyone is perfect, it is the father in the gospel who makes reasonable requests to his sons. So, what is the point of the prophet and Jesus?
In Ezekiel, the people apparently can not understand how God thinks. They feel that they have a right to life in God, since after all, they are the ones who follow the Law. It does not matter that they manipulate the Law and use it to their own advantage. But God tells them that a person who does right and then turns away from virtue, dies to life in God. Yet, a person who lives a wicked life, then turns to doing the good, will die with God. Note that none of these people are the ideal. Jesus builds on these ideas of the prophet in today’s gospel. Matthew is the only evangelist to include this story.
Jesus, in his prophetic way, turns the world of his hearers upside down. His words apply in the first place to the religious leaders of the Jewish people in Jesus day; of course they apply to any of his hearers, and to us today. Jesus presents two scenes to the religious leaders in his audience. Like in the reading from Ezekiel, neither of the two sons is the ideal son. They are both asked by their father to go work in the vineyard that day. After all, the sons benefit from the produce of the vineyards. It is not an unreasonable request.
One son says in a disrespectful way, “No, I will not.” But, then, he decides later to go to the vineyard and do as he was asked. The other son is very respectful, and says, “Yes, sir,” but he did not go. In front of others the disrespectful son embarrassed his father greatly, especially in that time when respect and honor were very important; yet in the end, he did what his father asked. The polite son showed respect to his father, but did not do what he wanted. It must have been a difficult decision for the leaders to decide which son did the better thing. But it is clear that Jesus thought that the disrespectful son who did the father's request, was the better son. Neither son was the ideal; the ideal son would have said, “Yes, sir,” and gone to the vineyard.
The point Jesus is making to the leaders, and to us, is that those who were supposed to recognize John the Baptist for who he was, did not. John did not fit their idea of a prophet; he said the wrong things, and kept the wrong company. The leaders were so blind and set in their ways, that they could not recognize God’s word being preached in their midst. The were the sons who said yes, but did not go to the vineyard. Yet the tax collectors and prostitutes were caught up in the radical message of John; they heard God’s word and changed their lives. Yes, the were the son who said, “I will not,” and went out into the vineyard.
We today, in our sureness of the word of God, have to be careful, lest we slip. Are we so set in our ways that we cannot hear the freshness of God’s word? We do not want to be the son who says ‘yes’ and does nothing. We at least want to be the one who says ‘no,’ and answers the father call. Better yet, we want to be the perfect child which is the Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We do not want to hang on to our title as child of God, but rather “humbly regard others as more important than ourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” We are called to give the continual “Yes” to the Father.
There is a story that comes out of the Second World War that will haunt you if you think about it. It is about a little Jewish boy who was living in a small Polish village when he and all the other Jews in the vicinity were rounded up by Nazi troops and sentenced to death. This boy joined his neighbors in digging a shallow ditch for their own graves. Then they were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned. But none of the bullets hit the little boy. His naked body was splattered with the blood of his parents, and as he fell into the ditch, he pretended to be dead. The grave was so shallow that the thin covering of dirt did not prevent him from breathing. Several hours later, when darkness fell, this 10-year old boy crawled out of his grave. With blood and dirt caked on his little body, he made his way to the nearest home and begged for help. A woman answered the door and immediately recognized him as one of the Jewish boys marked for death by the Nazis. So she screamed at him to go away and slammed the door. Dirty, bloody, and shivering, this little boy limped from one house to the next begging for help. But he always got the same response. People were afraid to help. Finally, in desperation, he knocked on a door, and just before the lady of the house could tell him to leave, he cried out, “Don’t you recognize me? I am the Jesus you say you love!” The lady froze in her tracks for what seemed like an eternity to the little boy. Then with tears streaming down her face she threw open her arms. She picked up the boy and took him inside to safety. This action is truly a world turned upside down! Sometimes we need to be reminded that when we do it unto the least of these, we do it unto Him. Christian Discipleship as explained through today’s Gospel parable, is a call to availability. It is also a call to sensitivity. Only in availability and sensitivity do we give that continual “Yes” that Jesus always gave his Father.