We are called to conversion and obedience to the commandments of God.
Today’s Gospel speaks of the parable about two sons whose father operates a vineyard. He tells one to go and work there. The lad refuses but later changes his mind and goes. The second one is also told to go. He agrees to do so but in the end he does not. “Which of the two did his father’s will?” Jesus asks. They all agree that it was the one who refused at first, but obeyed later. The parable refers to the two kinds of personalities and characters. The first one is open to the grace of God and ready to repent and be converted. So he could be considered as more sincere and dependable. The other is superficial and would like to please everyone by mere words and not by deeds. He could be considered as insincere and dishonest and not reliable at all. He is very selfish in outlook and will do anything to materialize his plans, because of his duplicity.
The message is clearly directed at the religious and civil leaders of the people in Jesus’ time. They spoke much about God and, in particular, how God was to be served by a strict observance of the Law. But it is clear they did not have the spirit that Jesus was communicating through his life and teaching. They lacked the spirit of love, compassion, care and forgiveness for the weak and vulnerable. They also heard the teaching of Jesus but made no effort to carry it out as they were not palatable for them. They excused themselves by challenging Jesus’ legal authority to do what he was doing. Since Jesus did not fit into the parameters of their legal world, they could not classify him and they rejected him. On the other hand, the “tax collectors and sinners are making their way into the kingdom of God before you”. They certainly were not keeping God’s Law. They had said No to his commandments many times. But then they met Jesus and they have experienced a radical transformation (metanoia,) in their lives. They listened and they responded.
We can think of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) who was a chief tax collector. One of the Twelve Apostles, Matthew (Matt 9:9) also called Levi had been a tax collector (Mark 2:13-14; Luke 5:27-28). Mary Magdalene is another from whom Jesus expelled seven demons considered to be an outcast (Luke 8:2). So certainly Luke intends us to understand that she had lived what we might describe as “a very bad life” before she met Jesus. The chief priests and elders of the people had not converted, because they were blind to the call of God. So in the parable that Jesus taught, the tax collectors and sinners were the first son who at first said no to his father but then thought better and obeyed his father and worked in the vineyard. They had lived a life disobedient to God in the past but when they heard the preaching of Jesus they converted. The chief priests and elders of the people were like the second son in Jesus’ parable who said, “Yes sir” but did not obey his father. They heard the preaching of Jesus and knew the Scriptures but their hearts were closed and they were not responding to God.
Why were tax collectors and sinners able to open their hearts and respond to the preaching of Jesus while the chief priests and elders were not? Perhaps it is because the tax collectors and sinners had reached rock bottom and realized that the lives they were living were empty and meaningless. The tax collectors were well known to be greedy. They paid taxes for the full year in advance to Rome, which they would later collect from others but Rome never checked if they were overcharging the tax they collected from others. Everyone suspected they collected much more tax than they paid to Rome. Surely the sinners and tax collectors realized their lives were meaningless and they received respect from Jesus, which they did not receive from any of their contemporaries. In Jesus they found life as it was meant to be. Jesus offered hope to the tax collectors and sinners; hope they never before had. When they converted the words of God to the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading were fulfilled,…if a wicked man, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins which he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (Ezek. 18:27-28)
There are two messages coming out loud and clear. On the one hand, we can never be complacent about our relationship with God. It is possible for any of us at any time to find ourselves falling away from our commitment to Jesus and to his Gospel. And God always accepts us where we are. If we are in union with him, things are well; if we have by our own choice become separated from him, he accepts that too. His love and his grace are always available but they can be rejected and spurned. And we can “die in our sin”.
On the other hand, no matter how far we have strayed from God and Jesus in the Gospel, no matter how depraved we have become, it is never too late to turn back and we can be absolutely sure that a warm, no-questions-asked welcome is waiting for us. We remember the parables in Luke’s gospel about the lost sheep and the lost (prodigal) son. It is the meaning of the dialogue between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection – “Do you love me…?” Three times Peter had, in pure fear, used oaths to deny he ever had any connection with Jesus. Now, repentant, chastened and humbled, he comes back. Not only is he forgiven, his mandate to lead the community remains intact. His repented sin, far from being a disqualification, will make him a far more understanding leader. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”
We have the magnificent hymn about Jesus’ own spirit of service and selflessness in the Second Reading. Paul says this in the context of a plea for greater unity in the Christian community at Philippi. In urging the Christians to serve each other’s needs with the deepest respect, he asks them to have the mind of Jesus himself, to think like he does. And he illustrates this by quoting what seems to have been an early Christian hymn. It speaks of the awesome dignity of Jesus as the Son of God. Yet Jesus did not emphasize this in his life among us. On the contrary he “emptied” himself and became just like us. He went further and took on the status of a slave and ultimately accepted human death, and the most shameful of all possible deaths, death as a convicted criminal on a cross, a barbaric form of execution.
If we were to be filled with that same spirit that Jesus had we would have nothing to fear. And what wonderful places our Christian communities would be: places of harmony and unity, of love and caring, of compassion and mutual support, of looking after each other’s needs. And, let us remember, it is never too late to start. Let’s begin today.