Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-9; Pilippians 2:1-11, 27; Matthew 21: 28-32

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see if there are any ideas underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said -- Son, go out and work in the vineyard today. He said in reply -- I will not, but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply -- Yes, sir, but did not go.

Note that this son responds with a respectful and obedient -- Sir -- yet he fails to put that respect and obedience into practice. It is only an outward sign that has no root in the interior.

Which of the two did the will of his father? They answered -- The first.

The title that Barclay gives to this story is -- The Better of Two Bad Sons. To be clear, this parable is praising neither of the sons; rather it paints a picture of two less than perfect prototypes. Neither son responds with an unequivocal YES and skips merrily into the vineyard whistling. Both sons disappointed the father; yet one disappointed him less.

The Jewish leaders are represented by the son who said that he would obey his father but then did not. The tax collectors and prostitutes are represented by the son who chose to follow his own will but later followed the will of his father.

The tax collectors and prostitutes may not have physically looked to be standing on the escalator to heaven far before the chief priests and elders. Compared to the fine, clean, robes, the refined postures and the sturdy gaits of the chief priests and elders, the tax collectors and prostitutes would have looked weathered, distrusting, and slightly broken. Yet is was not their outward appearance but the inward appearance of their hearts that mattered to God. In short, they believed the message of John and responded whereas the Jewish leaders did not.

Here words are much less valuable than actions. Actions disclose the genuiness of the heart more than words. Biting into the ripe fruit of a tree will be more telling of the quality of the tree than by simply reading a poem about it.

Extending the parable to today, the characters of the two sons represent two groups of people. One group of people profess with strength; but practice with weakness. They say the right prayers, exhibit the right religious objects, and display profound piety; but when it comes to putting it all into practice they hit a brick wall.

The other group have lived a rough and tumbled life with the physical and emotional scars to prove it; yet grace has overcome sin in their lives and they have grabbed hold of the caboose of righteousness and are making their sometimes bumpy journey up to the front of the train. If there was a third son who simply did the will of the father out of respect and obedience, he would represent the sturdy faithful with which every church is blessed -- the people for whom I celebrate a Christian funeral and say to myself -- if Gertrude is not in heaven, we are all in a big bunch of trouble!

Jesus said to them -- Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.

One should be able to find a shock or a jolt inside of all of the parables of Jesus; however in this case the shock or jolt comes after the completion of the parable when Jesus declares that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom before the chief priests and elders.

When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.

If you want to find a parish that is alive with the spirit of compassion, forgiveness, humility and love then find a parish in which sinners are called to repent and to find reconciliation with God -- a parish whose members go and find the lost and welcome them back in. Find a parish which knows how to celebrate the goodness of God. When you find that, you find inspiration in your own faith. You find inspiration to be a better person yourself. The chief priests and elders found these things when they saw the unrighteous start upon the path of righteousness because of the words and actions of John the Baptist. Yet, they never shared in the spirit that was alive in this profound movement of mass transformation and reconciliation. They never kicked their sandals off, hiked up their fine robes and splashed into the Jordan with a contrite heart. What stopped them? Pride and fear. Hostility and suspicion crippled their hearts.

HOMILY: The purpose of this parable was to give a wake-up call to the chief priests and elders. Telling them that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before them would have definitely gotten their attention. However, the reaction to this news is of most importance. What would our reaction be to this statement if we were in the position of the chief priests and elders? Would pride or fear paralyze us from assessing our lives and considering our failing? Are we like the brother who first said --No -- and then changed his heart and said --Yes? If so have we lost that spirit of newness, thanksgiving, and humility that we celebrated at our conversion?

If pride or fear has stopped us from a deeper conversion of heart what steps can we take to change that? Those steps usually do not resemble extraordinary, Cecil B. DeMille, epic moments. Rather they are small goals that are set and met. They include purifying our hearts in the sacrament of reconciliation; resolving to put words into actions each morning before stepping out of bed; declaring interiorly that people will be able to identify you as a follower of Christ simply by your Christian actions and not by empty words or pious gestures; by living a life filled with the joy that doing the will of the Father brings.

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