Matthew 21: 28-32
In today’s gospel, Matthew shows his concern for the crisis that was caused by the message of Jesus and the consequences that result from reaction to that crisis. At a time of crisis, one must make crucial decisions, which lead in turn to fateful consequences. In today’s gospel parable, the vineyard stands for God’s people and the two sons represent those who are called to care for them.
The first son represents the established religion, which was in place when Jesus came. As often happens in such cases, the religious leaders of that time paid lip-service to the God of mystery but, when Jesus came in a way they had not expected, they were unable to accept the mysterious ways of God,
The second son stands for the “outsiders;’ including Gentiles, who had been accustomed to saying “No” to God but, having been chastened by their experience of sinfulness, responded positively to the challenge of Jesus. They were joined by the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who, though despised by the religious types of that time, were more humble and therefore more open to the message of Jesus. The point is that pride and smugness are far greater obstacles to true conversion than a sinful past ripe for repentance.
Most mainstream religions have developed elaborate rituals and clear moral guidelines to help their members to establish and maintain a good and fruitful relationship with God. This is surely a responsible and praiseworthy provision since it is so easy to lose one’s balance in matters of religion.
All this becomes problematic, however, when one’s relationship with God is reduced primarily to observing rituals and keeping rules. Such behavior is readily sanctioned by society and it is, of course, much preferred to unruly and destructive actions. But such religious behavior can remain very superficial, focusing only on external observance and appearances rather than on deep and personal conversion. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day certainly appeared more religious than the tax collectors and prostitutes. However, their strict observance hid a deep and fatal flaw, which was self-righteousness, expressed most often in rash judgment.
It should be obvious that Jesus is not suggesting that we ought to despise ritual and disregard moral codes. But it is just as obvious that he not only wants us to say the right things (like the first son), but also to act in a way that benefits others (like the second son). This will happen only when we are truly converted from selfish ways and become exemplary in tolerance, compassion and forgiveness.
Sometimes people are repelled by a religious observance that has no depth and is in fact accompanied by questionable behavior. However, if they look a bit more closely, they will see that there are also observant believers whose behavior is perfectly in harmony with their faith.
It is easy to be scandalized if that is what one wants. Scandal can be taken as well as given! And one may easily look for such scandal simply in order to have an excuse for not being a truly moral person. The ideal remains a faithful observance of rituals and rules accompanied the kind of motivation that is presupposed by such observance.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.