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 and the religiously observant of His day. He calls to their attention at least three things, three common sins or pitfalls 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 that context. Let’s also learn how they are particularly problematic when it comes to our mandate to hand on the faith through evangelization.
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 yet also quite 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 that the sons had one Father. Yes, we all have a connection with another that we cannot deny, regardless of 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 sever 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, gangs of young men loitering in front of 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 that these are our brothers, our sisters. It is so easy to dismiss them, to write them off, to strive to distance ourselves from them. But God has a question for us: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9)
Yes, there are many whom we may be tempted to try to disown if we’re not careful. Perhaps they are of a different political party, a different economic class, or a different race. Maybe they are just people we don’t like. We divide, but God unites. A man had two sons, and yes they are different but he is father to them both; he loves both of them. He speaks 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, with the one considered the chosen people and the other not. And hence the Church is catholic, is universal; she seeks to 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 souls can be lost that way.
II. Leaping to Conclusions – A second “sin of the pious” is leaping to the conclusion that someone is irredeemably lost, writing someone off. 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 going out and working among the people 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 Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (e.g., Lk 15:2). In effect, Jesus says to them, “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 to just write people off, even those who seem locked in very serious and sinful patterns, or who seem hostile to God. The example of St. Paul should certainly give us hope as should that of St. Augustine. In fact, St. Augustine wrote well on the fact that we just don’t know how things will turn out, that we should pray for everyone, writing no one off:
For what man can judge rightly concerning another? Our whole daily life is filled with rash judgments. He of whom we had despaired is converted suddenly and becomes very good. He from whom 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 knew a man (now deceased) who told me his story, the 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 easily have concluded that the situation 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 problem 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 that 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 than 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 anyone is a finished work and a permanent member of the vineyard. Indeed, pray, hope, and work—for your own salvation and that of others, even those who seem well within the vineyard. For here, too, you and I know many stories of former parishioners, even parish leaders who later drifted away. St Paul spoke of how he had a kind of sober vigilance, even regarding his own salvation: 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 appears to be respectful to his father. When told to go into the vineyard he respectfully tells his father that 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 superficial. His behavior is emblematic of a great danger exhibited by some of the religiously observant: the danger of just 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 forgiveness of those who have wronged us, of generosity to the poor, of chastity, of compassion, of love for our spouse and children, of speaking the truth in love, of evangelization and being God’s prophets? Will we go to the vineyard? Or is it all just so much lip service we’re paying 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 broader disobedience. For it is too easy and too common for religiously observant persons to reduce the faith merely to rituals and, once the rituals are observed, check off the “God-box.” In effect these people are 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 the hypocrisy a mile away. How on earth can we ever hope to win souls for Christ if they just see us going through the motions, checking off the God-box but living lives that are unreformed and untransformed? Our greatest witness has got to be a life that is being changed by Jesus Christ; a life that manifests the biblical principles of love, justice, and charity; a life that demonstrates a biblical understanding of sexuality; a life that exhibits the biblical priorities of forgiveness, mercy, and generosity; a life lived with a renewed mind and heart.
Now none of us do this perfectly, but pray that God’s transformative power is at work in us and that people notice it. Nothing is more destructive to evangelization than lip service Christians, who give the outward appearance of obedience and religiosity but who everyone knows are really phony. And nothing is more helpful to evangelizing our children, family members and friends than Christians who display lives that are being transformed and made joyful, serene, and holy.
All of this leads to this message: “God can use anything, but He shouldn’t have to.” In other words, though none of us is a perfect disciple, 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
The video below features the text of another parable of Jesus’ that speaks of a king who gave a banquet for his son and then summoned the invited guests to come because all was ready. Here, too, we must enter the banquet. As the sons, we are called to enter the vineyard to work. Will you go? How about your sons and daughters; will they be at Mass this weekend?