In understanding this Gospel, we cannot overlook the audience Jesus was addressing. The text begins: Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people. In effect, Jesus was addressing the religious leaders of his day and the religiously observant. And he calls at least three things to their attention, three common sins of the pious, if you will: Lost Connections, Leaping to Conclusions and Lip Service.
Let’s look at each of these in turn, remembering that though they are not exclusive to the religiously observant, they are considered in the context of the religiously observant. Let’s also learn how they are particularly problematic when it comes to our mandate to hand on the faith through evangelizing our family and others.
I. Lost Connections – The text says, A man had two sons. Now the text will go on to describe these two sons as very different and also very similar. The man of course is God and we are all his children. And though very different, we all have the same Father and we all have sin. A man had two sons, which is another way of saying the sons had one Father. Yes we all have a connection we cannot deny, whatever our differences. We will look more at the differences between the two sons as we go on, but for now, consider merely this fact, A man (God) had two sons.
Why emphasize this? Because it is too easy for us to seek to severe the link we have with one another, to effect a kind of divorce from people we fear or do not like. For example, on the way to Mass, we may drive past tough parts of town and see drug dealers, scary gangs of young men near liquor stores, prostitutes and other outwardly troubled and rebellious people. And it is too easy to be cynical and say, “Some people’s children!” or “Look at that, how awful.” Or we may simply ignore them. Yet in all this we fail to recall: here are my brothers, here are my sisters. So easily we can dismiss them, write them off, strive to effect some sort of divorce. But God may has a question for us, “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9)
Yes, there are many whom we try to disown, if we are not careful. Perhaps they are of a different political party, a different economic class, a different race, or just someone we don’t like. We divide, but God unites. A man had two sons, yes they are different, but he is Father to them both, he loves them both. He speak to them both, and calls them his sons.
In terms of evangelization, it will be noted that Jesus has sent us to all the nations. No longer are Israel and the Gentiles to be separated, the one considered chosen people, the other not. And hence the Church is catholic, is universal, seeking unite all. For a man had two sons, but the two sons have one Father. In seeking to evangelize, has it ever occurred to you that the least likely member of your family could be the one God most wants you to reach? Be careful of lost connections, for on account of it souls can be lost.
II. Leaping to Conclusions – A second “sin of the pious” is to leap to the conclusion that someone is irredeemably lost, to write off someone. Many of the Scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant of their day, had done just this with a large segment of the population. Rather than to go out and work among them to preach the Word and teach observance of the Law, many of them simply called the crowds “sinners” and dismissed them as lost. In fact they were shocked that “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (e.g. Lk 15:2). Jesus says, to them, in effect: “Not so fast. Don’t leap to conclusions and write anyone off. Sick people need a doctor and I have come to be their divine physician and to heal many of them.”
Thus Jesus, in today’s parable, speaks of a sinner who repents: [The Father] came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘ but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The point is that we just don’t know, and we should be very careful not merely to write people off, even those who seem locked in very serious and sinful patterns, or seem even to be hostile to God. The example of St. Paul should certainly give us hope, as also that of St. Augustine. In fact St. Augustine wrote well on the fact that we just don’t know how things will turn out, and that we should pray for everyone, and write no one off:
For what man can judge rightly concerning another? Our whole daily life is filled with rash judgments. He of who we had despaired is converted suddenly and becomes very good. He from who we had expected a great deal fails and becomes very bad. Neither our fear nor our hope is certain. What any man is today , that man scarcely know. Still in some way he does know. What he will be tomorrow however, he does not know. (Sermo 46, 25)
Scripture also says, The oppressed often rise to a throne, and some that none would consider, wear a crown. The exalted often fall into utter disgrace; ….Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known. (Sirach 11:28-29)
I know a man (who is now deceased) but he told me his story, of how he was raised in the Church, got all his Sacraments, went to Church regularly, and was a God-fearing man. But in his early 40s he descended into alcoholism, began to be unfaithful to his wife, stopped going to Church and was dismissive of God. Were you or I to have seen him at that time, we might have easily concluded it looked bad. But somewhere in his early 60s, he knows not how, (except that someone was praying for him), he pulled out of his rebellion and re-entered the vineyard. He sought help for his drinking and reconciled with his wife and children. Daily mass, weekly confession, daily rosary, and Stations of the Cross, yes, when he returned, he really returned. But he said to me he had done a lot of sinning, and now it was time to do a lot of praying, making up for lost time, as he put it. He died a penitent in the bosom of the Church.
You just never know. Don’t write anyone off. Nothing stabs evangelization in the heart more that the presumption by many of us that someone is an unlikely candidate for conversion. Keep praying and keep working. Jesus tells us of a son who told his father to buzz off, but later repented and went into the vineyard. Pray, hope and work, you just never know. Don’t give up.
And don’t think any one is completed yet and a permanent member of the vineyard. Indeed, pray, hope and work even for your own salvation, and that of others, who seem well within in the vineyard. For here too, You and I know many stories of former parishioners, even leaders who later drifted. St Paul spoke of how even regarding his own salvation he had a kind of sober vigilance: But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27)
III. Lip Service – The text says, The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘ but did not go.
So, consider the second son. He is personally respectful to his Father. When told to go into the vineyard he respectfully tells his Father he will do so. He would not dream of cursing his Father, or addressing him in any strident way. In terms of all God’s children, you might say he was religiously observant, outwardly respectful, a decent sort of person.
But in the end he does not get around to going to the vineyard. Whatever his reasons, his obedience to his Father was only cursory. He is emblematic of a great danger of the religiously observant, the danger of giving God lip service. Yes, we will praise the Lord, sing a hymn, shout Hallelujah and say Amen, all on Sunday. But on Monday will we obey and go to the vineyard of obedience, of forgiving those who have wronged us, of being generous to the poor, of being chaste, of being compassionate, of loving our spouse and children, of speaking the truth in love, of evangelizing and being God’s prophets? Will we go to the vineyard? Or is it all just lip service we pay to God.
And the greatest sadness of all is that it is our very religious observance (a good and commanded thing to be sure) that often blinds us to our wider disobedience. For it is too easy and too common that religiously observant person will reduce the faith merely to rituals and, once the rituals are observed, check off the “God-box.” In effect saying or thinking, “OK, I’ve gone to Mass, paid my tithes, said a few Amens and praised the Lord by singing. Now I’m done,” the God-box is checked. Yes with our lips we have praised God on Sunday. But do we go to the vineyard on Monday?
And lip service Christians are a terrible witness and a real blow to evangelization, because people can spot them a mile away. How on earth can we ever hope to win souls for Christ if they just see us going through the motions, and checking off the God-box, but living lives that are unreformed, and un-transformed? Our greatest witness has got to be a life that is being changed by Jesus Christ, a life that manifests biblical principles of love, justice, and charity; a biblical understanding of sexuality, biblical priorities of forgiveness, mercy and generosity, a renewed mind and heart.
Now none of us do this perfectly, but pray God his transformative power is at work in us and that people can notice it in us. Nothing is more destructive to evangelization, than lip service Christians, who give the outward appearance of obedience and religiosity, but everyone knows they are really phoney. And nothing is more helpful to evangelizing our children, family members and friends than Christians who show lives that are being transformed and made joyful, serene and holier.
And all this leads to the title of this message, “God can use anything, but he shouldn’t have to.” In other words, it is true, none of us are perfect disciples and, despite this, God can work through us anyway. But, frankly God shouldn’t have to do this.
So in today’s Gospel Jesus points out three powerful obstacles to his grace flowing through us to others: lost connections, leaping to conclusions, and lip service. All of these things lessen our effectiveness as disciples, prophets and evangelizers sent out to make disciples of all the nations. Yes, God can use anything, but he shouldn’t have to.
Drawing above: Two sons, by Davis
This song is an old African American Spiritual and it says, Oh fix me! Fix me Jesus, fix me. Yes, God can use anything, but he shouldn’t have to, and so, as the song says, Fix me Jesus, fix me.