26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
The parable of the two sons
Disobedient obedience and obedient disobedience
Matthew 21: 28-32
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to guide the reading:
Jesus recounts a very common event in family life. One son says to the father, "I’m going!" but then does not go. Another son says, "I’m not going!" but then goes. Jesus asks his listeners to pay attention and express an opinion. In our reading let us be attentive so as to discover the precise point to which Jesus wishes to recall our attention.
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Mt. 21:28-31ª: The comparison
Mt 21:31b-32: The application of the comparison.
c) The text:
28-31a: 'What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, "My boy, 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?' They said, 'The first.'
31b-32: Jesus said to them, 'In truth I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, showing the way of uprightness, 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.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may enter into us and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) Which point in this story of the two sons most caught your attention? Why?
b) To whom does Jesus address himself? Why does he tell this parable?
c) What is the main point underlined by Jesus in the attitude of the two sons?
d) What kind of obedience does Jesus suggest through this parable?
e) How exactly do the prostitutes and publicans get preference over the priests and elders?
f) And I, where am I? Am I among the prostitutes and sinners or among the priests and elders?
5. A key to the reading
for those who wish to go deeper into the text.
a) The context within which Matthew places these words of Jesus (Matthew chapters 18-23):
* The context of Matthew’s Gospel within which this parable is found is one of tension and danger. After the Discourse on the community (Mt 18:1-35), Jesus leaves Galilee, crosses the Jordan and begins his last journey towards Jerusalem (Mt 19:1). Long before, he had said that he was to go to Jerusalem to be apprehended and killed and that then he would rise again (Mt 16:21; 17:22-23). Now the time has come to go to the capital city and to face prison and death (Mt 20:17-19).
* When he arrives in Jerusalem, Jesus becomes the subject of conflict. On the one hand the people welcome him joyfully (Mt 21:1-11). Even children acclaim him when, with a prophetic gesture, he expels the sellers from the temple and he heals the blind and the lame (Mt 21:12-15). On the other hand the priests and doctors criticise him. They ask him to tell the children to keep quiet (Mt 21:15-16). The situation is so tense, that Jesus has to spend the night outside the city (Mt 21:17; cfr Jn 11:53-54). But the following day he goes back early in the morning and, on the road to the temple, curses the fig tree, symbol of Jerusalem, a fruitless tree bearing only leaves (Mt 21:18-22). He then goes into the temple and begins to teach the people.
* While he is speaking to the people, the authorities come to discuss with him. Jesus answers them one by one (Mt 21:33-22:45), the high priests and the elders Mt 21:23), the Pharisees (Mt 21:45; 22:41), the disciples of the Pharisees and of the Herodians (Mt 22:16), the Sadducees (Mt 22:23), the doctors of the law (Mt 22:35). Finally, Jesus denounces at length and in harsh terms the scribes and the Pharisees (Mt 23:1-36), followed by a tragic accusation against Jerusalem, the city that will not be converted (Mt 23:37-39). It is within this context of tension and danger that Jesus tells the parable of the two sons, the subject of our meditation.
b) Commentary on the words of Jesus as found in Matthew:
Matthew 21:28-30: An example taken from family life
* What is your opinion? This is a provocative question. Jesus asks his listeners to be attentive and to reply. In the context of the parable, the listeners invited to give their opinion are the high priests and elders of the people (Mt 21:23). These are the ones who, from fear of the people, would not give an answer to the question as to the origin of John the Baptist, whether he was from heaven or from earth (Mt 21:24-27). These are the ones who will seek a way to arrest him (Mt 21:45-46).
* A man had two sons. Jesus tells the story of a father who says to one of his sons "My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today". The young man replies, "Certainly, sir!" but then does not go. The father then says the same thing to his other son. This son replies, "I will not go!" but then goes. The listeners too are fathers of families and must have known these matters from personal experience.
* Which of the two did the father’s will? Jesus ends the parable making explicit his initial question. The priests and elders answer promptly, the second! The answer came quickly because the matter concerned a familiar situation, well known and evident, one that they experienced in their own families and, most probably, practised by them (and by all of us) when they were young. Thus, in reality, the answer was a judgement not on the two sons in the parable, but also on themselves. By answering, the second, they were judging their own attitudes. For, in times past, they had so often told their father, "I will not go!" but then went under pressure of circumstances or because remorse led them to do that which the father asked. In their reply they show themselves as if they were obedient children.
* This is precisely the function or the "trap" of the parable, namely, to bring the listeners to feel involved in the story, so that, using their own experience for criterion, they would come to a value judgement of the story told in the parable. This judgement will soon be used as a key to apply the parable to life. The same didactic procedure may be found also in the parable of the vineyard (Mt 21:41-46) and that of the debtors (Lk 7:40-46).
Matthew 21:31-32: Application of the parable
* I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you! Using the reply given by the priests and elders as a key, Jesus applies the parable to the sinful silence of his listeners before the message of John the Baptist. The reply they gave becomes the sentence of their own condemnation. According to this sentence, it is the publicans and prostitutes who, at first, had said no to the father but then did the will of the Father, because they had received and accepted the message of John the Baptist as coming from God. Whereas they, the priests and elders, were the ones who, at first, had said yes to the father, but had not carried out that which the father had asked, because they would not accept the message of John the Baptist, not even in the face of so many who did accept it as from God.
* Thus, by means of the parable, Jesus turns everything upside down: those who were considered transgressors of the Law and therefore condemned, were in truth those who had obeyed God and tried to walk the way of justice, while those who considered themselves obedient to the Law of God, were in fact those who disobeyed God.
* The reason for this harsh judgement from Jesus lies in the fact that the religious authorities, priests and elders, would not believe that John the Baptist came from God. The publicans and the prostitutes, however, believed. This means that for Jesus the contemplative outlook, that is, the ability to recognise the active presence of God in persons and things of life, was not in the priests not even among their leaders, but it was in those who were despised as sinners and unclean. It is easy to understand why these authorities decided to apprehend and kill Jesus, in fact, "when they heard these parables, the chief priests and the scribes realised he was speaking about them" (Mt 21:45-46).
* Anyone who wished to apply this parable today, would probably provoke the same anger that Jesus did through his conclusion. The same thing happens today. Prostitutes, sinners, the ignorant, some women, children, lay people, workers, indios, black persons, prisoners, homosexuals, persons with AIDS, drunkards, drug addicts, divorced persons, married clergy, heretics, atheists, unmarried mothers, the unemployed, the illiterate, the sick, that is, all those marginalised as not part of the religious circle, these persons, frequently, have a sharper outlook in perceiving the way of justice rather than those of us who live all day in church and are part of the religious hierarchy. It is not because a person belongs to the religious hierarchy, therefore, that he or she has a pure outlook that allows him or her to perceive the things of God in life.
To throw light on the words of Jesus
* A new way of teaching people and to speak of God.
Jesus was not a scholar (Jn 7:15). Unlike the Apostle Paul, (Acts 23:3), he did not go to the high school in Jerusalem.
He came from the country, from Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. Now, this carpenter from Galilee, goes to Jerusalem and, without getting permission from the authorities, starts teaching the people in the square in front of the temple! He said new things. He spoke differently, divinely! The people were impressed by his way of teaching, "A new doctrine! Taught with authority! Different from that of the Scribes! (Mk 1:22.27). What Jesus did most was teach, it was a habit with him. Many times the Evangelists say that Jesus taught. If they do not always say what Jesus taught, it is not because they are not interested in the content, but because the content comes through not only in the teaching but also in the gestures and in his attitude to the people. The content is never separate from the person who communicates it. The goodness and love that come through in his way of acting and of being with others are part of the content. They are like the "tempera", good content without goodness is like spilt milk.
* Teaching through parables.
Jesus taught above all through parables. He had an extraordinary capacity to find comparisons in order to explain the things of God, things not so evident, by means of simple and clear examples, which the people knew and experienced in their lives, in their daily struggle to survive. This presupposes two things: keeping to the experiences of life and keeping to the things of God, of the Realm of God.
Usually, Jesus does not explain the parables, but says, "Those who have ears to hear, listen!" Or "You have heard. Now try to understand!" For instance, the farmer who hears the parable of the seed, says, "I know what the seed that falls on the ground is all about! But Jesus said that this is connected with the Realm of God. What does he mean?" We can then imagine the long conversations and discussions of the people. Once a bishop asked the community, "Jesus said that we must be like salt. What is salt used for?" The community discussed this and, finally, came up with more than ten purposes for salt! They then applied all this to the life of the community and discovered that to be salt is difficult and demanding. The parable had worked!
In some parables there are things that do not usually happen in life. For instance, when have we ever seen a shepherd leave ninety-nine sheep to go looking for the one that is lost? (Lk 15:4). When have we ever seen a father who welcomes his dissolute son with a feast and not a word to scold him? (Lk 15:20-24). Where have we ever seen a Samaritan who is better than a Levite or a priest? (Lk 10:29-37). In this way, the parable provokes thought. It invites us to be involved in the story and to reflect on ourselves, starting from the experience of life and then confronting this with God. It makes us discover from experience that God is present in our everyday life. The parable is a participative form of teaching, of educating. It does not present every little detail. It does not give all the facts, but entices us to discover. A parable changes our view; it makes us contemplatives, persons who delve into reality. Herein lies the novelty of Jesus’ teaching in parables. It is different from the teaching of the doctors who taught that God manifests himself only in the observance of the law. For Jesus, "The Realm of God is not the fruit of observance. The Realm of God is among you!" (Lk 17:21).
6. Psalm 121
The contemplative eye discovers the presence of God in life
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and for evermore.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practise the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.