The man went and said to the first son,“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.