Ezekiel 18: 25-28 + Psalm 24 + Philippians 2, 1-11 + Matthew 21: 28-32
October 1, 2023 Not delivered in person. I am away from Naples
Years ago, I lived with a Vietnamese Priest who was a refugee with a frightening story about his escape from Vietnam in a stolen boat that was fired upon as they slipped away in the darkness and drifted for several days on the open sea. At first, we had some trouble understanding each other not just because of language limitations, but because of cultural differences. In church order, I was his superior even though he was twenty years older than I was. That rich Asian culture has deep respect for senior authorities which I was in his eyes. The age and culture in which he grew up would never allow or tolerate saying “no” to a superior. He never told me no, and it caused a lot of confusion until I caught on. I would ask him to take a Mass. He would say, “Yes” and never show up. I would ask him if he was coming to dinner and the same thing would happen to the frustration of the lady who provided us meals. He was a good and holy man. He drove me crazy. I can never hear this Gospel without thinking of him, and that experience has given me a slightly different way of understanding what is happening here.
That son who said Yes, just like Father Bao always did, was not bad because he didn’t do anything. In fact, to the people who first heard this parable, he was good because he was respectful and did not insult his father by saying, “no.” That other one who was disrespectful to his father by saying, “No” is also good because he did what was asked of him. This thinking could leave us wondering what’s the point of the parable, because in some ways, both did the right thing. Yet, neither of them did it the right way.
Perhaps there is another question to be asked here. Which son was most concerned with the family’s well-being? This story really ends up being about action, about doing something. Polite words, pious gestures, bumper stickers with scripture quotes, are all empty when not backed up by committed activities. As we have all heard from our parents while growing up, “Actions Speak Louder than Words”. Only those who act, even if they are slow to respond, have done the father’s will.
The truth is there is a little of each son in all of us. Sometimes we say, “Yes” and never go. Sometimes we say, “No” but eventually do go. This Gospel is meant for us just as much as it was for those scribes and Pharisees to whom it was first spoken. We tell the story once again to help us, no matter how long it takes, to do the Father’s will which means doing something with God’s undeserved gifts.