Professing with our Words AND our Deeds
What’s going on here?
Today’s Gospel is situated near the end of Jesus’ public ministry. According to Matthew, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem triumphantly in the procession we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. By this point, Jesus is a certified celebrity. The author of Matthew’s Gospel tells us that, when he arrived, “the whole city was shaken,” and the verb used to describe how the city shook appears only one other time--to describe the earth literally quaking upon Jesus’ death on the cross. So the author wants us to know that, in much the same way a modern stadium shakes under the feet of fans during a home football game, the streets of the city were vibrating with the physical energy of the crowds cheering Jesus’ entry.
And while the adoring hordes may have been ecstatic to see Jesus, the religious authorities were less thrilled. We know that Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem was not long to be a joyous one, as the Pharisees and certain leaders of the Sanhedrin plotted to have Jesus arrested. Their prior apprehension toward Jesus bubbled over into outright abhorrence when, in one of the most powerful scenes in all of Scripture, Jesus drove the vendors and money changers out of the Temple, flipping over tables and wreaking destruction. It is only a few sentences later in this same chapter of Matthew that the religious authorities, still dumbstruck by disbelief and horror at Jesus’ actions, challenge him and demand to know, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?”
It’s an entirely legitimate question. The priests who offered sacrifice at Temple were direct descendants of the priests who offered sacrifice at the Temple under King David, and further back still, to the time of Levi and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They could trace their authority all the way back to the time of Moses, when it was the Lord who had formed an everlasting covenant with Aaron and his offspring to perform the priestly roles. The Scribes and Pharisees derived their authority directly from their command and interpretation of Torah, the Word of God itself. But Jesus drew upon no authority except his own. And who was he? The son of a carpenter from an insignificant village in Galilee?
It is not hard to imagine that the religious leaders of our own day would have a similar reaction! The Temple was the holiest site in all of Judaism, and this “nobody” had shown up, begun shouting about desecration of the holy site, and flipping over tables! Imagine if someone showed up to the Vatican, or to the local Cathedral, and started doing the same! Doubtless, the bishop, the priests, the parish staff would all demand to know, “Just who do you think you are?! And on what grounds are you doing all this?!”
But rather than tell them, directly, who He is--the Son of God--Jesus turns the question around on them and offers them this parable as part of his retort. The parable is really a sort of riddle, one that exposes the religious leaders as hypocritical and leaves them humiliated.
Okay, so what’s the parable about?
The parable draws a distinction between public profession of faith and private practice of the underlying principles professed. In ancient times, how one behaved publicly was a matter of enormous importance. A son who publicly refused to do his father’s will would bring great shame upon the family. Indeed, a child who cursed his parents could be punished by death, according to the Torah. So when the first son publicly rebukes his father, the audience would have let out a collective gasp. The family’s whole social standing was at stake, whereas with the second son--the one who said he would do the father’s bidding, but never actually did it--the matter was a private one. Sure, the second son technically disobeyed, but only the family would know that, and they could handle it internally.
An analogy: imagine that a certain head football coach has a very strict curfew policy the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Now imagine that reporters ask various players how they feel about the policy, and one wide receiver says, “I think it’s stupid. We’re grown men, we should be able to decide for ourselves. I plan to go out and have fun.” But, after thinking about it, that wide receiver decides to have a low-key week and makes curfew every night. Now imagine that the quarterback, asked the same question, smiles and says he has all the trust in the world in the coach, adding, “I’d never do anything to jeopardize our chances.” But then that night, the quarterback is out all night partying.
Which one causes the bigger scandal? Well, if the one who was out all night doesn’t get caught, no one in the “outside world” will ever be any the wiser, so there won’t be any story about it. But the player who publicly takes issue with the coach’s position--well, that’s going to cause a lot of headaches for the coach and the team. Journalists will be coming up to the coach demanding to know if he’s lost the trust of the players, peppering him with questions about team cohesion and policies. So perhaps it’s not THAT hard for us to understand why the son who publicly refuses to do his father’s will would have caused the bigger scandal in the ancient world. Except that Jesus turns the received wisdom on its head and demonstrates that, as we would say, actions speak louder than words.
What does this have to do with us?
Jesus is calling out the religious authorities for being hypocrites. Like the second son, the profess publicly the particulars of Torah, but they don’t private practice the principles contained therein. Sadly, in contemporary society, we have only too many examples of exactly this phenomenon. Hardly a week goes by that we do not read about some famous politican, bishop, or celebrity who has crafted a public persona that does not reflect his/her private life. The politician who advocates for traditional marriage while having an affair; the bishop who preaches solidarity with the poor but goes home to a million-dollar mansion; the celebrity activist who gives speeches on environmentalism but insists on private jets to events.
More importantly, however, is the way in which each of us, as religious believers, at times inhabit the persona of the first son or the second son. The first son publicly refuses to go along with the expected behavior of his day, but in his heart, he experiences some form of private conversion and seeks to do what is right. The second son publicly says all the right things, but privately, his words ring hollow, as they do not filter down into his actual behavior. How often are we the first son, when we struggle openly with what is asked of us, whether it is from a parent, a teacher, a coach, or the Church? How often are we the first son when we say we simply cannot go along with the Church’s teaching on some tough topic?
Contrarily, how often are we the second son when we show up to Mass every Sunday, dutifully reciting the words of the Creed, enthusiastically singing the recessional hymn, perhaps even volunteering to serve as a liturgical minister... but then failing to live, from Monday through Saturday, a life that reflects the core truths of the Gospel? We profess, “Yes, yes, Lord, I am here to do your will!” at Church, but then we gossip or harbor jealousy or fail to care for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized members of our society. Today’s Gospel is not, ultimately, about highlighting the hypocrisy in others--it is about recognizing those tendencies in ourselves and asking for the grace of conversion that we might both SAY we will do the Father’s will AND really DO it!
Questions for Reflection
1.) In what sense are you “the first son,” openly struggling with--or even refusing--what you are told you are supposed to be doing? Are there any particular things you have been told to do that you refused at first... but later went and did? What changed your mind?
2) In what sense are you “the second son,” publicly professing that you will do what you are told... but then not always following through? Are there particular aspects of being a Christian that you profess publicly, but that you struggle with privately?
3) How can you be a witness to others, in both saying and doing the will of God in your life as you understand it? How can we build up a community of faith here on campus, in which all of us support one another in being “sayers” AND “doers” of the faith?