Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 21:28-35, September 25, 2011
IF NOYNOY AQUINO was catapulted into the Presidency, it was not so much because of what his party had done; rather, it was because people had had enough of the litany of the alleged corruptions under the previous administration. For many, his election slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” accurately described the state of the nation. The immorality and the amount of money involved in various allegations were simply mind-boggling: NBN-ZTE scandal, Hello Garci scandal, P738M fertilizer scam, P532M overprice of Macapagal Bvld, Nani Perez Power Plant deal, P1.38 poll automation contract, Northrail project, Garcia and other AFP Generals scandal, the results of the 2007 Mindanao elections, Mindanao Massacre, and many others. One hopes that the new President will succeed in pursuit of the “matuwid na landas” (right path)! And yet, early this year, an SWS survey showed that his net satisfaction rating plummeted. This could be an indication that in the perception of those surveyed, the President has yet to show tangible results. Sen. Francis Pangilinan himself said that the Palace should match campaign promises with concrete accomplishments.
That words have to be substantiated—this is the main point of today’s parable of the two sons. The story is extremely short. When their father asked them to go and work in his vineyard, the first one objected, but eventually changed his mind and obeyed. The second one said yes but never went. To the question of Jesus, “who of the two did the father’s will?” the answer of course is the first son. There are various ways of understanding the parable, depending on the level of interpretation one wants to focus on As told by Jesus, the story seems to have been originally linked with the question of who was a true Israelite. The first son portrays the tax collectors and sinners. Because they were unable to follow the law, they were treated as outside the pale of the true Israelite community. The second represents the scribes and the Pharisees, those who know the law. They claimed to represent the true Israelite community because they were faithful in its observance. Because of their claim, they became so secure in their position that when God revealed himself not through the law but through a person named Jesus, he refused to respond to him. That is why they are compared with the second son because they said yes to God, but in actual fact, they did not obey his word spoken through Jesus. On the other hand, the tax collectors and sinners, who were regarded as transgressors of the law, now said yes to the revelation in Jesus. Hence, they are identified with the first son.
It is even possible that the parable was applied first not to the ministry of Jesus but to that of John the Baptist. In his case, the poor who did not know the law accepted his teaching, but the religious establishment did not. But at the level of Christian life, the parable is about discipleship. In particular, it has to do with the importance of practical response to God’s invitation in Jesus. No doubt, the first son is held up as an example of discipleship. It does not matter whether one was born to a pagan family, or to morally questionable parents; what matters is that, in the ultimate analysis, one accepts God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ through repentance and faith. Just as the tax collectors and sinners repented and believed in Jesus (Matt 21:32), so any person, whatever might be the beginnings of his life, has only to respond to the offer of discipleship by changing his life and putting on the life of Christ. Such a person is God’s son, Jesus’s disciple, heir to the kingdom of God: “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is brother and sister and mother to me” (Matt 12:30). One of the bitterest criticisms of Jesus against the Pharisees precisely consisted in this—that they merely talk, but their deeds are scarce: “Do not follow their [the Pharisees’] example. Their words are bold, but their deeds are few” (Matt 23:3). They are like the second son who said yes to his father, but failed him.
Discipleship is thus a matter of deeds. In much the same way that the real test of “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” is whether the current administration has made tangible results in its war against corruption, so the real test of discipleship is whether the words are backed up by deeds. Because discipleship is what makes one a child of the kingdom, Jesus could say: “None of those who cry out, “Lord, lord,’ will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). On the basis of this, one can only be amused that peripatetic preachers and born-again Christian could be so zealous in their attack against the Catholic Church, convinced as they are they have the truth, but are intolerant of those who happen to disagree with them. How often they forget that they have to love in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). The final test that one is a disciple is not the ability to quote the appropriate biblical text to prove that one’s argument is rooted in the Bible, but the fleshing out of that belief in love.
The parable is a big challenge to us, Catholics. The center of our lives is the Eucharist, where we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). In Christian life, To borrow the words of the Second Vatican Council, it is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in her sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 10). But there looms the danger that the Eucharistic celebration may be reduced to a mere ritual celebration, divorced from our daily life. It could happen that though we are faithful in celebrating it, we do not make an effort to live the life patterned after Jesus’, which is a life of self-giving (Phil 2:9; Second Reading). In that sense, we could be like the Pharisees whose words are bold, but whose deeds are few and far between. To make the Eucharist the real center of our life, it must also affect our very life—all our thoughts and actions come from it and lead toward it. For a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to action on behalf of others is simply empty; it does not exhibit a response to the offer of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.