Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Do It!

To whom does Jesus address this sharp little parable of the two sons? In the preceding episode, Matthew states that they are the chief priests and the elders.

Sep 27, 2017

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)
Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28
Philippians 2:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32

To whom does Jesus address this sharp little parable of the two sons? In the preceding episode, Matthew states that they are the chief priests and the elders. On the day after Jesus’ dramatic action in the Temple precincts, these high officials have come to challenge Jesus’ authority for “doing these things,” apparently referring to Jesus’ clearing the Temple area and continuing to hold teach-ings on the Temple grounds (the officials’ turf, so to speak).

Jesus turns the tables on his questioners. He asks “Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” Was Jesus dodging their question? No. He was exposing his questioners’ hypocrisy. They were not making an honest enquiry in order to take a stand. Matthew makes this clear by telling us what the chief priests and elders said among themselves. “If we say, ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they say to Jesus, “We do not know.” Thus Jesus’ question has exposed the fact that these men are not really concerned about divine authority; they are simply manoeuvring to protect their own power. Had they really been concerned about divinely given authority, they would have recognised it in John the Baptist.

Against that background, the parable of the Two Sons is clear. In the Scriptures, a vineyard is an image for Israel itself and the owner is God (e.g., Isaiah 5). If anyone is commissioned by the Owner to “go out and work in the vineyard,” it is surely the religious leaders. When the chief priests and elders affirm that the one who did his father’s will is the one who, though he initially said no, later goes to work, they condemn themselves, as Jesus spells out in his application (Mt 21:32).

“When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.” In this, the tax collectors are like the first son (the no/yes one); for in their former way of life, they were naysayers to the will of God, but they eventually did the will of God by responding in repentance to the preaching of John the Baptist. In one way, the leaders seem to reflect the performance of the second son, in that, as religious leaders, they were ostensibly keepers of the law of God. But, since the immediate context entails the responses first to John and now to himself, they are “none of the above.” That is, the chief priests and elders have been closed to God’s authority, both when it was mediated by John and also now as it is mediated by Jesus. So they are worse than either of the two sons in the parable. Intent only on holding on to their own human authority, they have become hard of heart, unresponsive late and soon to God’s mediators. Yet, Jesus’ confrontation does not slam the door on his listeners. He says that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God “before you” — not instead of you. Conversion is always possible.

This parable gives us an insight into why “the poor” are congratulated in the first Beatitude. The religious leaders became distracted from acknowledging the authority of God and doing his will because of their attachment to the power of their human authority. Tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, despite whatever minor financial and erotic power they may have possessed, were sufficiently aware of their limitations as to be open to the power and authority of God when they encountered it in John and in Jesus.

Very likely, most of us feel we would have been among those who responded well to Jesus’ exercise of authority, had we been alive in early first-century Galilee and Judea. It might be a good meditation for us to try to imagine how we would have responded to John the Baptist. Would we have given a good listening to that strange man of the wilderness, dressed in animal skin, snacking on locusts and inviting people to a dunking in the Jordan? Though John and Jesus were very different men — one dedicated to fasting and the other dining regularly with tax collectors and sinners — those who were drawn to Jesus were the same ones who gave John a hearing. --By Prof Emeritus Fr Dennis Hamm, SJ

Thoughts from the Early Church

The doors are open for all who sincerely and wholeheartedly return to God; indeed, the Father is most willing to welcome back a truly repentant son or daughter. The result of true repentance, however, is that you do not fall into the same faults again, but utterly uproot from your souls the sins for which you consider yourself worthy of death.

When these have been destroyed, God will again dwell within you, since Scripture says that for the Father and his angels in heaven, the festal joy and gladness at the return of one repentant sinner is great beyond compare. That is why the Lord cried out: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.

I desire not the death of a sinner but his conversion. Even if your sins are like crimson wool, I will make them as white as snow; even if they are blacker than night, I will wash them as white as wool.

Although only God has power to forgive sins and cancel transgressions, the Lord commands us also to forgive our repentant brothers and sisters every day.

So if we who are evil know how to give good gifts, how much more generous must be the Father of mercies, the good Father of all consolation, who is full of compassion and mercy, and whose nature it is to be patient and await our conversion!
Genuine conversion, however, means ceasing to sin without any backward glances.

God pardons what is past then, but for the future, we are each responsible for ourselves. By repenting, we condemn our past misdeeds and beg forgiveness of the Father, the only one who can, in his mercy, undo what has been done, and wipe away our past sins with the dew of his Spirit.

And so, if you are a thief and desire to be forgiven, steal no more. If you are a robber, return your gains with interest. If you have been a false witness, practise speaking the truth. If you are a perjurer, stop taking oaths. You must also curb all the other evil passions: anger, lust, grief, and fear.

No doubt you will be unable, all at once, to root out passions habitually given way to, but this can be achieved by God’s power, human prayers, the help of your brothers and sisters, sincere repentance, and constant practice. --By Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-2l5)

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