Have you ever had a change of heart? Someone asks you to do something. When the request is made all the immediate rejections come to mind: “I’m too busy,” “I don’t feel like it,” “maybe later,” “do it yourself,” “I have better things to do,” or simply “no.” But after a little time, there’s a change of heart.
Perhaps we think “what he or she’s asking me is not too difficult, I can help” or “I’m just being selfish, I’ll go and help,” or “maybe they really need me to do this,” or “maybe this is really to help me,” or “ok, it is a good idea, I should do it,” or “it’s a good thing, maybe I just have to re-prioritize.” Any of these thoughts lead us from the path of “no” to “yes.”
Usually when this change occurs and we follow through, we feel good about it. We do something that we were not planning to help someone out; or someone helps us to better ourselves and we start to sense that we are better for following through. Perhaps we might consider one of these times when we listen to the Gospel today.
In its original context, the passage should be considered with the passage just before it in the Gospel, as the two seem to be connected. The two sons of the parable represent a contrast. The basis of the contrast is following God’s way. The previous passage sees a group of Jewish leaders questioning Jesus about his authority; it is to this same group that Jesus addresses the parable. This group has acknowledged neither John the Baptist’, nor Jesus’ authority or their message of repentance. At one time these ones did say “yes” to God by following the law; but now, in rejecting Jesus, the one who brings the law to its fulfillment, they are saying “no.” In the parable, this group is represented by the second son.
The first son represents the tax-collectors and prostitutes. These groups were marginalized by their fellow Jews and were seen as collaborators with the Romans (tax-collectors because they worked for the Romans; prostitutes because they sold their bodies to the soldiers). They were also marked as immoral (tax-collectors for a reputation of cheating; prostitutes for sexual violations of God’s law).
Their “no” is represented by their way of life until there was a change of mind. The “change of mind” could very well be an indication of “repentance” which both John and Jesus preached. In other words, they first rejected God’s way but when they heard the call to change, to walk in God’s way, and they responded with a change of heart and their manner of living. So the parable is not just about following God’s way in a general sense; but acknowledging the mission of John and Jesus as authentic and in that sense authoritative.
As far as interpreting the passage for today, like many of the parables, there can be nuanced meanings. One would follow upon the original context mentioned above. It could be applied to religious leaders who have not internalized Jesus’ authority or way but keep to the externals of the law but fail to recognize the need for continual repentance. These could be contrasted with the marginalized of today (not necessarily tax-collectors and prostitutes) who encountered Christ and His Way. One’s who heard the call to life and left behind their former ways to walk in His light. Another aspect of this interpretation would follow last week’s passage – do we rejoice in the sinner or marginalized person (represented by the tax-collector or prostitute) who have first said “no” but now say “yes.”
Another way of looking at this parable, might be a little more introspective.
We have so many different aspects of our lives and are involved in so many things in life. We have minds that think, feelings that emote, bodies that act and interact. We have a life at work and at home. We have families and friends. We have hobbies and past-times. We eat and drink. We exercise and rest. And so forth, the list could go on and on.
Perhaps one question we might ask ourselves, in light of the present parable, what are the areas of my life where I may have said “no” to God but then had a “change of mind” and followed through.
Another question might be: are there any areas of my life where I’ve said “yes” but have not followed through. Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to look at these since they in some way, great or small, distance us from the Kingdom. Changing these ways leads to life.
Ezekiel reminds us “But if he [the sinner] turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.”
God is constantly inviting us to share in the life he offers. Perhaps this is what is meant by the father’s asking his sons to go out and work in the vineyard.
Jesus, in another account, famously says: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved and have life…. I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (cf. John 10:9-10) Entering through Jesus is following Him and His Way; saying “yes” and “changing our minds.”
Psalm 25 is a prayer that can help us along the path of life. The psalm seeks assistance in knowing God’s way. “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.” He then praises the Lord for his compassion. The mercies which He has shown in the past fill the psalmist with life and he is full of gratitude.
Finally, he acknowledges that God will not leave him void or alone to find a way in the world but will show him or her the way to walk – “He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his ways.”
Jesus somewhat breaks the mold of the parable. He is the One whose “yes” is always “yes.” Hence Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians urges us: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus…” He then goes on to give us the great hymn which extols the humility of Christ who “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” It is he who humbled himself that the Father raised to life so much so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus opens his ministry with the call: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” The call is repeated numerous times in a variety of ways.
Today He invites us to “repent,” in other words, have a change of mind or heart; and in doing so find more of the life He has won for us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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