Actions speak louder than words
Many parents today could empathise with the father asking each of his two sons to work in their vineyard. It is not an unreasonable request. Presumably their livelihood relies on the income from the vineyard, and the father speaks not harshly but with affection, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.”
Jesus does not explain the motivation of the two sons, but the defiance of the first son in initially refusing to work in the vineyard would have hurt his father. Jesus does not say why the son then ‘thought better of it’ and went to work. Perhaps it was seeing the pain on his father’s face. The point for Jesus is that he changed his mind.
The second son instantly agreed to his father’s request but then reneged.
As St Matthew recounts, Jesus is telling this story in a contest with the chief priests and elders of the people who have challenged his authority to be teaching and acting as he does. So, he tells this story and asks them to decide who did the father’s will. Of course they answered: the one who went to work in the vineyard.
In words that must have shocked and outraged his opponents, Jesus declares: ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you’. At that time, tax collectors collaborated with the oppressive Roman authorities and made money for themselves as well. They were socially despised and outside the Jewish law, like the prostitutes.
Yet these despised people were among those who heard and believed the message of John the Baptist, ‘a pattern of true righteousness’, while the chief priests and elders, the very ones who should have been most alert to the message of John, refused to accept him. They were like the second son who said he would go to the vineyard, but then refused. Jesus is declaring that God’s loving embrace is available to everyone, especially those who feel most excluded, or who are ‘seekers’ drawn by some deep inner longing.
This incident of Jesus arguing with these religious leaders also carries a warning for us today. We too can be deaf to the unexpected call of God. Moreover, Jesus insists that responding to the father’s will is not just a matter of words, but of action. Actions speak louder than words.
So we pray that God will truly walk with us, and help us live with insightful concern for others, especially in this traumatic year that has included extensive bushfires, COVID-19 and economic distress for many.
Let us also embrace the call of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ to play our part in protecting our planet and environment, while striving for a more just world with social and economic systems that serve everyone well.
Bruce Duncan CSsR
© Redemptorists 2020