Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:28-32 – NRSV).
This parable is unique to Matthew.
“With the debate about John’s authority (21:23–27) Matthew presents the first of five controversies between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem (see also 22:15–46). The series of debates is interrupted by three parables (21:28–22:14)” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 300).
Following the observation by one scholar that “the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions” (M Kähler – cited by Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, Crossroad, 1986, 189), we note the mounting tension in Matthew’s Gospel at this point. Firstly, Jesus has given his third prophecy of the passion (20:17-19); the Messiah has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11); Jesus has expelled the dealers from the temple (21:12-16); the religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority (21:23-27). Then we have the three parables dealing with the theme of Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish authorities, the very ones who should have led the way in receiving him and his message: today’s parable of the two sons who are asked to go and work in the vineyard (21:28-32), followed by the parable of the wicked husbandman (21:33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14).
he changed his mind: The Greek word is metamellomai. This word metamellomai shares an etymology with the verb metanoeō and the noun metanoia, both of which carry the idea of an inner transformation that leads to a different way of being in the world. Matthew has used the verb metanoeo to describe the message of both John the Baptist (3:2) and of Jesus himself (4:17).
This willingness/unwillingness “to change one’s mind” is central to the Gospel of Matthew and this parable in particular. Jesus levels a strong accusation at the religious authorities: “you did not change your minds and believe him”. As a result “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. Everything is turned on its head! We can assume that the religious authorities would have felt very uncomfortable with this message.
I will go, sir: The response of the second son (verse 30) – who said “Yes” but then refused to go – is very formal and polite. There is a not so subtle irony in this polite formality. By way of contrast, the response of the first son – “Don’t want to,” – is utterly lacking in politeness and formality; in fact it would have been offensive for the son to speak to his father in that way. Jesus wants to leave the religious authorities in no doubt as to the point of this story. Again the riff raff are seen to be more real and faithful to the Covenant than the religious authorities.
We are reminded of the blunt words in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’”
Yet Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus is thoroughly Jewish, utterly at one with the tradition the religious leaders claim to identify with and teach. Matthew calls Jesus “Servant of God” (12:18-21 – from Isaiah 42:14), “Shepherd” (9:36; 10:6; 12:9-14; and so on) and “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7:11-14). “All the major Christological titles in Matthew’s gospel have deep roots in Jewish tradition and contribute to the picture of Jesus as thoroughly Jewish” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 1991/2007, 18).
Actions speak louder than words
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 21:28-32 – we have a parable of two sons. Both are asked to go and work in the vineyard. One says, “No”, but changes his mind and goes. The other says, “Yes”, but does not go. Actions speak louder than words! Given its place in the Gospel narrative – after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and amidst serious conflicts with the religious authorities – there is good reason to hear this parable as a “condemnation of the self-righteous attitude of the Jewish authorities” (Henry Wansbrough OSB, “St Matthew” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, editors Reginald C Fuller et al, London: Nelson, 1969, 733a).
However, if we read this text as a parable rather than an allegory, we can hear some deeper truths.
God speaks in actions! Biblical revelation is thus event-based and the primary event – after creation – is the Exodus Event. The Divine Presence – “I AM WHO I AM!” (Exodus 3:14) – enters the human story through actions.
The promise, “I am with you!” (Exodus 3:12) is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. He is, in his very being, the event of God’s self-revelation: “The revelation of God in Jesus is seen most clearly, not in his spoken words, but in his actions, and essentially in the actions of the climactic Paschal event of Passion, Death and Resurrection. Jesus ‘spoke’ most eloquently when he was virtually silent as he acted out the new and definitive Exodus event of passage from death to life. … Like Confucius, Jesus said many true and important things, but the real message of Jesus is in what he did! It is only slightly simplistic to say: Confucius say; Jesus do!” (Demetrius Dumm OSB, Flowers in the Desert: A Spirituality of the Bible, Sacred Winds Press. Kindle Edition. Locations 301 & 325).
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, we have heard a warning from Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21). It is not enough to simply talk about God’s saving actions. We must become God’s action.
The Eucharist is a celebration of the New Exodus Event of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. In the Eucharist, we are gathered together by God’s Holy Spirit, and through ritual and symbol, we participate in the New Exodus Event now. Our daily living and dying becomes inseparable from the living and dying we celebrate in the event of Eucharist: “Through Him, with Him, and in Him …. ” Thus we speak of Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1324).
Our very presence – before we even open our mouths – speaks. Sometimes silent presence is the best action. In the beautiful Irish film, The Quiet Girl, the old dairy farmer, Sean, advises nine-year old Cait: “Too many people miss the opportunity to say nothing”. How can “saying nothing” be so powerful?