26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 28, 2014
Matt 21: 28-32
Iona College, New Rochelle
“Jesus said to the chief priests and elders…: ‘A man had 2 sons. . . . Which of the 2 did his father’s will?’” (Matt 21: 28, 31).
The short parable that Jesus tells today presents his audience with a choice, a decision, that affects their relationship with God, with “the Father.” The short passage from the prophet Ezekiel does the same: shall one lead a virtuous life or a wicked one?
The parable and the prophecy aren’t about choice alone but also about change, the possibility of change, the conversion of one’s behavior—which should follow one’s decision for obedience to God’s will, for a life of virtue. Take note: both readings are about one’s actions, not one’s interior attitudes, one’s heart, altho in Jesus’ parable the 1st son’s behavior is motivated by an interior conversion: “Afterwards he changed his mind and went” (21:29).
It’s true—a fundamental doctrine of the faith—that our actions are not the cause of our salvation. It’s impossible to earn grace, and it’s always the grace of God thru Jesus Christ that saves us. Yet Jesus demands a response to his grace: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (cf. John 15:10). “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). “Whoever hears my words and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock foundation, so that it withstood a flood and wasn’t swept away” (cf. Matt 7:24-25).
In other words, our actions indicate whether we’ve accepted God’s grace or not. We must act like Christians 7 days a week—in our home lives, our professional lives, our recreational lives, our friendships—and not just go to Mass and recite the Creed. One commentator has said this about our 3 most recent Popes: John Paul II told us what to do. Benedict XVI told why we should do it. Francis tells us: “Do it!”
Jesus makes plain that a positive response to his word—or conversion—is possible for anyone at any time. Here he cites the prostitutes and tax collectors who followed him, their lives changed (21:32), to the scandal of all the “best” people. On Calvary the so-called Good Thief found redemption (Luke 23:42-43)—whether he was a highway robber like those who waylaid the traveler on the road to Jericho in the parable of the Good Samaritan, or a murderer, or an insurrectionist like Barabbas, isn’t clear; but we can be sure he was more than a pickpocket. The Collect today notes that God “manifests [his] almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy,” and of course Jesus is the embodiment of that mercy, God’s Word made flesh.
Perhaps some of us are burdened by our sins, sins of the distant past, sins in the present that we can’t seem to shake off. While we breathe, it’s never too late to start over, to pick ourselves up and get ourselves into the vineyard (21:28); to let Jesus pick us up and to get back onto the journey with him of doing the Father’s will. As for the past, what we said or did or failed to do years ago, it’s the past and we can’t change it; but we can give it to Christ and let him take care of it: to pardon it, to erase it from the divine memory chip.
What about the 2d son, the one who said he’d go into the vineyard but didn’t go (21:30)? The juxtaposition of today’s readings invites us to link him with “someone virtuous [who] turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies” (Ezek 18:26). Just as we can always turn to God and be saved as long as we’re still in this world, it’s also possible for us to turn away from God, to blow the save in the 9th inning, and lose everything. We must beware of the sin of presumption, thinking that we’re secure in God’s grace, that we’ve got it (salvation) made and can relax our vigilance against temptation and sin, or worse yet, thinking that God’s infinite mercy will unfailingly overcome our own willfulness if we should “break bad.”
Some Protestants hold to a doctrine that once you’re saved—once you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior—you’re saved for good. “Brother, have you been saved?” Truly, Jesus died and rose to save us all from sin and death. But in our individual cases, our redemption is never complete and guaranteed in this life, no matter what we profess in our Creed or catechism, not until our final “yes” to God, whether we’re affirming a life-long commitment like St. John Paul II, for instance, or making an end-of-life conversion like the Good Thief. Even for the saints—read St. John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul—conversion is an ongoing project, a daily response to Jesus’ invitation to turn away from sin, believe in the Gospel, and walk alongside him until he escorts us into his Father’s kingdom.