I have no children and so it is hard for me to grasp the full force of today’s parable of the two sons. This is not to say that the point escapes me, it is simply that unless one hears this parable with the experience of a parent something of its power remains abstract. Before we consider the parable however, we first hear from the prophet Ezekiel, whose ministry in the early sixth century BC was occupied with bringing the rebellious sons and daughters of the tribe of Judah to recognize their wicked ways and return to the Lord.
We read: “If he turns from the wickedness he has committed and he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life” (Eze 18:27). The Judahites, and previously their relatives from the other tribes of the land of Israel, had constantly drifted away from the Lord and the righteous way of life that the Lord expected of them, worshipping false gods. In spite of these betrayals the Lord was always eager to welcome them back to his embrace, setting them on the path to true peace and justice.
Occasionally such a moment of conversion would occur, when someone like Hezekiah, king of Judah some hundred years before Ezekiel, turned the people of Judah away from idolatry and reformed his life and theirs. We could say that in his zeal for conversion Hezekiah embodied the words of the Psalmist we hear today: “The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not; in your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O Lord” (Ps 25:7).
The parable of the two sons from today’s Gospel puts the story of conversion bluntly. Jesus explains that after being ordered to a task, one of a man’s sons replied, “‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.” The first son is then compared to the tax collectors and prostitutes who initially lived dissolute lives but converted at the preaching of John the Baptist. The second son is likened to the chief priests and scribes to whom Jesus was speaking when he delivered this parable as he taught in the Temple area.
Parents in particular can appreciate the frustration of telling a child what to do and seeing the child turn away in defiance. Parents also know the relief and joy of seeing a previously disobedient child come back and do right by them, perhaps even offering an apology for their initial defiance. The wonderful news of Jesus’ parable of the two sons is that God our heavenly Father is eager to welcome us back no matter how far or how embarrassingly we have strayed—after all, Jesus purposefully chose tax collectors and prostitutes as his examples of repentance because they were seen at the time as especially disgraceful and worthy of contempt.
Regardless of our past and how ashamed we may be of it the Lord’s forgiveness and a new beginning await us when we, like Ezekiel urged, “turn from our wickedness and do what is right.” In his Letter to the Philippians today, Saint Paul relates of Christ: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6). Taking his selfless humility as our guide let us set aside our attachments to temptations and to regrets over the past in order to live as free and faithful children of God.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Photo: Seth Harbaugh, the Sea of Galilee.