Unlike other parables, the one in today’s Gospel does not seem to pose a difficult riddle. A father asks his two sons to go out to work in the vineyard. The first says no, but then changes his mind and goes. The second says yes, but does not follow through. It does not seem hard to answer Jesus’ question, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” Isn’t it the one who thought better of his original answer and actually complied with the father’s command?
Not so, says another ancient version of this parable. In some early manu-scripts of the Gospel, the answer is that the second son did his father’s will! In a culture where saving face is highly prized, it is deemed better to be publicly honored with an obedient response and privately shamed when the action does not follow, rather than be publicly shamed and privately honored.
In the literary context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directs this parable at the religious leaders who have tried to shame and discredit him publicly by challenging his authority. Jesus uses a technique like that of the prophet Nathan, who confronted King David about his sin with Bathsheba by telling a story about a rich man who took the one precious lamb of a poor man (2 Sm 12:1-12). Nathan invited David to pronounce judgment on a hypothetical situation, which ended up being a pronouncement on himself.
In similar fashion, Jesus’ parable is designed to jar the religious leaders into conversion, so that there will be coherence between what they say and teach and what they do. Earlier, Jesus had warned disciples that merely saying, “Lord, Lord,” was not sufficient; they must also do the will of God (7:21-27). In Mt 23:3, Jesus warns the crowds and his disciples not to follow the example of the scribes and the Pharisees, because they do not practice what they preach. Today’s Gospel holds out hope to the religious leaders: There is still time to turn around and make their deeds match their words.
A startling statement at the conclusion of the parable is meant to jolt the leaders into a change of heart: tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the reign of God ahead of them. This saying does not refer to the actual makeup of the retinue of Jesus’ disciples. Rather, it is hyperbole meant to contrast the best and the worst imaginable. The point is that the religious leaders, who should be the ones leading others into God’s reign, are not, while those who are thought least able to do so are repenting and believing and entering the reign of God.
It is always easier to see the discrepancies between saying and doing in someone else’s behavior. I can smugly point a finger at the Pharisees in the Gospel or at other contemporary leaders and see their need to change. It is harder to see the lack of a match between my own words and deeds. It is easy to say yes to following Jesus, but how difficult it is to do what that demands of us. If I say I value prayer, for example, do I actually carve out a consistent time and place to do it? If I say I am concerned for those who are poor, how is that visible in my lifestyle choices?
Fortunately, the burden of arriving at consistency in word and deed does not fall on our shoulders alone. Christ’s yes to the self-emptying love described so eloquently by Paul in today’s second reading is the empowering force that allows us not only to say yes but also to do the corresponding deeds. Each day Christ’s yes is pronounced anew in us, giving us myriad opportunities to open ourselves to conversion of heart and let those we regard least likely to do so to show us the way to enter God’s reign.