"The fundamental polarity of human life between what is and what ought to be, between lack and fulfillment, between determination and freedom, is not abnormal; it is the norm. Every person is exposed to it because of the inescapable structure of human formation." (Adrian van Kaam, The Transcendent Self, Dimension Books, 1979, 172.)

Gospel for the Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (27 September 2020)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
JParable of two sons

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him (Matthew 21:28-32 – NRSV).

Introductory notes

General

This parable is unique to Matthew.

“With the debate about John’s authority (21:23–27) Matthew presents the first of five controversies between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem (see also 22:15–46). The series of debates is interrupted by three parables (21:28–22:14).” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 300.)

Following the observation by one scholar that “the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions” (M Kähler – cited by Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, Crossroad, 1986, 189), we note the mounting tension in Matthew’s Gospel at this point. Firstly, Jesus has given his third prophecy of the passion (20:17-19); the Messiah has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11); Jesus has expelled the dealers from the temple (21:12-16); the religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority (21:23-27). Then we have the three parables dealing with the theme of Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish authorities, the very ones who should have led the way in receiving him and his message: today’s parable of the two sons who are asked to go and work in the vineyard (21:28-32), followed by the parable of the wicked husbandman (21:33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14).

Specific

he changed his mind: The Greek word is metamellomai. This word metamellomai shares an etymology with the verb metanoeo and the noun metanoia, both of which carry the idea of heartfelt repentance and an inner transformation that leads to a different way of being in the world. Matthew has used the verb metanoeo to describe the message of both John the Baptist (3:2) and of Jesus himself (4:17).

This willingness/unwillingness “to change one’s mind” is central to the Gospel of Matthew and this parable in particular. Jesus levels a strong accusation at the religious authorities: “you did not change your minds and believe him”. As a result “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. Everything is turned on its head! We can assume that the religious authorities would have felt very uncomfortable with this message.

I will go, sir: The response of the second son (verse 30) – who said “Yes” but then refused to go – is very formal and polite. Assuming that this “second son” refers to the religious leaders, there is a not so subtle irony in this polite formality. By way of contrast, the response of the first son – “Don’t want to,” – is utterly lacking in politeness and formality; in fact it would have been offensive for the son to speak to his father in that way. Jesus wants to leave the religious authorities in no doubt as to the point of this story. Again the riff raff are seen to be more real and faithful to the Covenant than the religious authorities.

We are reminded of the blunt words in Matthew 7:21-23: “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. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’”

Yet Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus is thoroughly Jewish, utterly at one with the tradition the religious leaders claim to identify with and teach. Matthew calls Jesus “Servant of God” (12:18-21 – from Isaiah 42:14), “Shepherd” (9:36; 10:6; 12:9-14; and so on) and “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7:11-14). “All the major Christological titles in Matthew’s gospel have deep roots in Jewish tradition and contribute to the picture of Jesus as thoroughly Jewish” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 1991/2007, 18).

Reflection

Today’s text – the parable of the two sons – comes from chapter twenty-one of Matthew’s Gospel. Its situation in the Gospel is significant. Chapter twenty-one begins with the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He is acclaimed by the people. That acclamation is followed immediately by the account of Jesus cleansing the temple. The chief priests and the elders of the people are provoked to anger by these two events. They challenge Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23). It is precisely at this moment that Jesus asks the religious authorities a question: “What do you think?” The question seems to be asked in a matter of fact kind of way, without anger. He then gives them a little parable to think about: “A man had two sons …..”

Jesus is not intimidated by the religious authorities. He chooses not to answer their question. Perhaps because he thinks that will lead to a pointless argument? We can imagine him looking steadily at these men who have repeatedly opposed him and tried to trip him up. He now puts before them a parable. Although parables are open-ended stories, the chief priests and the elders of the people would have felt keenly the obvious rebuke implied in this parable. Maybe they would have felt the rebuke so keenly that they would not have gotten around to engaging with the parable as such? Notwithstanding Jesus’ words immediately following the parable – “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” – it is reasonable to assume that this parable has much more to it than a mere rebuke of those religious authorities. Parables are open-ended stories. They can speak to each of us in different ways at different times.

So, what about you? Take a little time and use your imagination to place yourself there with Jesus and those troubled religious authorities. Feel the tension in the air. Do you have any sympathy for them? Jesus turns and catches your eye. For the moment, it is just you and him. He asks you the question: “What do you think?” Note the manner in which Jesus speaks to you. What is going on with you, as you face him and hear his question? What would you like to say to him?

Now read the little parable again. Slowly. Listen for any inner movements. Repeat words and phrases that catch your attention. Words like, “he went …” This sounds like a recurring theme in the Gospels – God seeking us out? “Go …” You are sent? Is that how you have lived your life to this point – as one sent? Maybe you see something of yourself in the first son? The second son’s “certainly sir” – so formal and reverent and …… hollow. “‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven ….’” (Matthew 7:21). Is there any hypocrisy in you? Let your imagination open doors to the truth.