Saint Ann, Fairview + Saint Anthony, Okeene + Saint Thomas, Seiling, OK
Ezekiel 18, 25-28 + Psalm 25 + Philippians 2, 1-11 + Matthew 21, 28-32
It is the day after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem when he had gone straight to the Temple and disrupted the business there. Matthew tells us that he spent the night in Bethany and then returned the next morning to the Temple where he was teaching. The authorities storm up to him demanding to know by what authority and power he had behaved that way. They are angry and defensive. So they go on the offense in their confrontation with Jesus trying to make him defensive. It does not work. Calmly he responds with this parable. Outside of this setting and context we do not get the point, and we are likely to think it is all about the two sons, but parables are always about God.
In cleaning out the Temple, Jesus said something that gives a clue leading us deeper into the parable. He accused those he drove out of turning the place into a den of thieves. Saying that the place had become a den of thieves does not imply that those doing business there were thieves. In fact, they were there doing what needed to be done for the Temple to operate. It was a den of thieves because thieves came there again and again to buy their offerings and rid themselves of the impurity and the spiritual consequences that came from their wrongdoing, and then they went right back to their wrongdoing. What Jesus is angry about is not the Temple workers, but rather the system that allowed thieves to come to the Temple do their ritual things and then just continue on as thieves without making any change in their lives. No conversion. They came in as thieves and they went out as thieves. No conversion.
So just after exposing this useless system he tells this parable which is about conversion. It is a parable that describes how conversion pleases the father more than just nice polite talk. Which son is more pleasing to the father? Surprisingly it is the bad boy in this family because the bad boy does what is right while the good boy who so nice and polite who probably says “please” and “thank you” twenty-five times a day does nothing but look good. As Jesus drives home his point that this parable is about conversion, he refers to the prostitutes and tax gatherers, the bad guys, insisting that God is more pleased with them than he is with the pious and slick talking authorities who have just come up to confront him, because they have not yet shown any signs of conversion refusing even to recognize the signs in others and wonder how it might apply to them.
We must take this parable seriously, because it reveals God’s expectations about conversion. Just like the thieves who ran to the Temple to make themselves look good, we must look carefully at ourselves and how we continue the same pattern. Confession is our trip to the Temple. Again and again we say the same things over and over time after time because we do the same things. We leave the sacrament and go right back to the things that brought us there to begin with. We feel better for a day or two, but the whole thing is too often about feeling better for a day or two without ever really addressing the tough work of conversion and putting an end to the behavior that made us feel badly to being with.
I also often think that people who avoid Confession altogether are in the same boat, so to speak. They say and delude themselves with all sorts of pious sounding excuses that still avoid the reality that we all need to be living in a constant state of conversion. Too much of our lives are spent putting things off that really matter. Good intentions that never become good behavior are a tragic consequence of talking nicely and doing nothing that matters. God has asked us to work in the vineyard. He expects a harvest. This is not just idealistic symbolism. It is about doing something with the gifts in our lives that will bring others into the reign of God. Instead of harvesting the grapes, we spend way too much time making bank deposits and watching the price of grain or the stock exchange and we end up looking a lot like that other son who says “Yes”, but means “No.” It ends up being a refusal of God, of God’s call, and of life in the Kingdom.