Today’s Gospel passage is one of my favorites. It is the “other” story about a father who had two sons. When most people hear that reference, they immediately think of Luke’s account of the so-called “Prodigal Son” parable. However, the Gospel according to Matthew provides us with another parable about a father with two sons. In this narrative we have yet another instance in which Jesus outlines what constitutes Christian discipleship, and the surprising truth that real Christian discipleship is not so easily discernible from appearances.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the 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.’
The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’
but afterwards he 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.
Which of the two did his father’s will?”
They answered, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the Kingdom of God before you.
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.”
(Matt 21: 28-32)
It can be difficult in a time and culture so motivated by appearances and public associations to accept that real Christian faith cannot be so easily discerned by what a person says or how a person looks or where a person does or does not worship. The stark truth of this Gospel passage is that words alone are not enough, that actions speak louder than words and in God’s sight count for so much more.
Listening to Jesus’s parable of the two sons is an interesting instance in which we, like the self-righteous hearers of Jesus in his own time, immediately recognize the truth he conveys: the son who despite verbally saying he wouldn’t tend to his responsibilities nevertheless does so in the end is the son who actually does the father’s will. And yet, the point of the story is unsettling in practice. Those who appear to shirk their Christian responsibilities, who might reject the institutional expressions of faith or deny the existence of God at all, they may very well be the ones who are doing the will of God when compared to the women and men so comfortably identifying as Christian disciples.
In this season of Advent, we have the opportunity to reflect on our own lives as Christians, to assess whether our actions align with our words, whether our way of being-in-the-world reflects what God expects of us or we simply claim Christianity by word or association and then go off and do our own thing. For, as Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, “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 7:22).