As the Gospel opens today, Jesus had only three days before His death. He was speaking one or two days after His triumphal entrance into the Holy City of Jerusalem on Psalm Sunday. A large crowd of people – estimated to be at least twenty – five thousand – Jews from all corners of the world – were in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The people Jesus was speaking to were the same people who had acclaimed Him as “King – the Son of David”. Now these people, a few days later, are getting ready to condemn Him to death, and prefer a thief – Barabbas – to Him!
When Jesus entered the “Golden Gate” of the temple on Palm Sunday, Jesus didn’t take possession of the city and claim it for the Royal Messiah. He didn’t expel the Roman Government; rather He expelled some of His own people because they were buying and selling and cheating the poor in the Temple of His Father. He overturned the tables of the money – changers and
shouted: “My Father’s house is a house of prayer and you have turned it into a den of thieves.” In short, He alienated His own people who should have believed in Him.
In telling the parable today, Jesus certainly knew that the Jews who had acclaimed Him King two days earlier were getting ready to betray Him. These people resembled the son in the parable who said: “I will go sir,” but did not go. They first acclaimed Him King, but then out of fear or some other motive, betrayed their Lord and Master! They wanted no part of Jesus’ teaching. They were unwilling to change their lives. They were self-righteous and refused to see any need for change. There was nothing further God could possibly tell them. They felt secure in their social and religious positions. They were perfect in their own eyes – thus, they had no need for Jesus’ message which would upset the system.
Jesus told to them, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you are. John came to you, and you refused to believe in him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him; still you did not repent and believe in him.”
The Pharisees should have been the first to believe in Jesus; instead, His greatest following was from the people who were rejected by the Pharisees – the tax – collectors and the social outcast prostitutes. These people recognized the need for change in their lives, and they began to do something about making a radical change. They listened to and responded to the message of John the Baptist.
The younger son who said, “I will not go” but later did, knew what repentance was. He changed his attitude toward his father. The tax – collectors, the prostitutes, and hopefully each one of us is like this second son who repented and responded to his father with a conversion of his heart. Our hearts need to respond to the message and person of Jesus Christ.
The lesson for us in the Gospel today is that we too can become so satisfied with ourselves, that we think there is nothing more God can expect of us. We can fall into the trap of thinking that we have made it. We go to Mass most of the time, we don’t kill anybody – there is nothing more we need to do. In effect, there is nothing further the Lord or His Church can tell us or expect from us.
The point of the parable today is that mere words are not enough to answer the Father’s call to work in His vineyard. It is only by actions that we establish whether we are truly followers of Jesus Christ. Our deeds are to match the beliefs we profess, thus the old adage “Actions speak louder than words”. The greatest barrier to the coming of God’s Kingdom in our midst is to be like the son who said “YES” to his father but did not respond with His actions. Perhaps we sometimes pay lip-service to our Faith but do nothing to let God make the radical changes we need in our lives.
Each one of us – me at the top of the list – needs to respond more deeply to the call from our Father to be more like Jesus His Son.
In His conclusion to the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus’ choice of words makes it perfectly clear: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but rather he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
The message of the parable today is the same as the lesson from Ezekiel: Salvation comes from not saying the right words and performing the right rituals. Salvation comes only from following the will of the Father. Salvation comes from emptying oneself as Jesus did in becoming man and submitting to the Cross.
In our Catholic tradition, many people have said “yes” to God’s will, and we are called to follow their example. Men and women like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas Moore, Thomas Becket, Bishop John Fisher, Pope John XIII, and John Paul II. These were people who found themselves objects of suspicion and investigation, yet they remained faithful to their Catholic Faith. Their Faith called them to heroic action. It wasn’t just words – they put their lives on the line, and so must we!