A man had two sons… No, not those two, another two! Our thoughts, perhaps automatically, turn to the parable of the prodigal son when we hear those opening words, but this is a different parable. It seems that Jesus liked using the image of two contrasting sons in his preaching. Perhaps to remind his hearers that everyone to whom the message is preached is a child of God, the loving Father.
But this particular parable deals with different answers to a call. A British satirical programme a few years ago had a piece which responded to a claim that a particular politician didn’t have the answer by saying that: “he had an answer, he just hadn’t shown his working.” A fairly common complaint about political promises all over the world these days, maybe.
But the issue isn’t confined to politics, after all. The distinction between talking about something, and actually doing it, is universal. And Jesus made clear the importance of doing: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” But this isn’t what this Gospel passage is really about. It’s about what happens when we recognise, or don’t, that we have failed to do what we promised.
Jesus is addressing this parable to the pharisees. The Pharisees were religious rigorists, who wanted everyone to keep the law of Moses – nothing wrong in that, of course, but they tended to look down on people who didn’t keep the law as they did.
The prostitutes and tax collectors who responded to John’s call to repentance had made a bad start: being a tax collector, extorting your own people in the context of the time, or selling your own self and your sexuality on the street were definitely not good things. But in repentance, they recognised their faults and showed their desire for something new and better. They showed that they, after all, wanted to live the way of righteousness that John preached. They wanted their Father’s will.
The Pharisees, however, rejected John. They didn’t see the need for repentance in their own lives and they didn’t think it was right to spend time with sinners. They wanted to encourage the strong and live pure lives, rather than to bind up the weak. They believed so strongly in their own cause that they forgot the Scriptures, where they could have read of God’s forgiveness for those who repent.
In doing this, they showed that, after all, they didn’t want the Father’s will. They had said yes, but they weren’t going to go. They didn’t accept the power and the importance of repentance and forgiveness. It is easy to identify the dramatic sins of others, the tax collectors and prostitutes. It is less easy to recognise that our own, less dramatic, sins are just as much in need of repentance and forgiveness. But when we do, when we recognise our need of God’s forgiveness, we really are doing our Father’s will.
Fr Chris Denham