When I was a kid, I had a book of Aesop’s Fables that I loved very much. At the bottom of each page, in italics, there was a short sentence to explain the moral of the story. It might say “Moral: Slow and steady wins the race” or “Moral: Be careful what you wish for”. While reading through the Gospel reading this week, the parable of the two sons, I couldn’t help but wonder how a children’s book of fables would explain this story. It seems to me that the most obvious, and common, moral attached to this short story is “Actions speak louder than words.” That’s a good moral – and has support from other parts of the Bible, such as the letter of James where we are admonished to be “doers of the Word, and not merely hearers.” (James 1:22). The parable of the two sons becomes another story where we sort ourselves, and all too often, all those other people we know too. Are we the kind of people who take action - even if we are somewhat reluctant, the job gets done? Or, are we more like the second son, the one with good intentions but nothing to back them up? We have a name, you know, for those second sons, the kind who say one thing but never do it: hypocrites.
More likely than not, this is what Jesus was getting at with this parable: The Gospel of Matthew is particularly concerned with the hypocrisy of the religious officials, and Jesus is addressing the Pharisees with this parable. Certainly, the story was intended to convict them, to show them that following the details of the law while ignoring the commandment to love was indeed hypocritical.
I’m sure most of us have known people like the Pharisees, who claim the name of Christian, but their piety seems more of a status symbol, never backed up by love in action.
And before we know it, our short parable has become a vehicle for judgment for us as well, as we sort our friends and those we are less friendly with into the categories of reluctant do-gooder or irresponsible hypocrite. Being the typical humans that we are, I’m sure we all know which category our friends are likely to end up in, and which category we tend to use to condemn those with whom we disagree. We all want to be like the first son, the one who messes up a little but is clearly better than the second son. After all, actions speak louder than words.
But, here is where I get somewhat stuck. It seems that this reading of the parable asks me to believe that words don’t really matter all that much, that the father wasn’t really hurt by the first son’s refusal. But I know from my own life – and I suspect that you might have experienced this too – words do matter. Anyone who has ever been the kid on the playground responding to teasing by saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” knows that the saying just isn’t really true. Careless words, angry words, mean and critical words – they do matter. Some words cause enough pain that almost no amount of action can repair the damage. Being the first son, the one who refuses his father, does not seem like such a prize anymore.
So, we have two sons, both of whom have hurt their father: one by his careless words, the other by his careless actions, or rather, inaction. Do we as Christians really aspire to either of these? Of course we don’t. Which is why this parable is a more accurate description of reality than we might care to admit. We all fall short of the glory of God – those moments when we remember our duty to love our neighbor, those points in our lives when we say yes to the call of Jesus are the good moments, and we all have them. And we all have moments when we refuse to listen to God, and points when we forget our promises to serve Jesus with our lives. If used as a tool for judgment, this parable will convict us all.
But, if heard as an invitation, this parable will welcome us all. Why is it that the first son returned to work in the vineyard, after refusing his father? Perhaps he had gone out to meet his buddies, and discovered that they were all working for their own fathers, so he turned around and went back. Maybe he was in the middle of a good book, or had a backache, or just in a bad mood when his father asked, but changed his mind and decided to help out after all. The point is, he changed his mind. He turned around. That is the root meaning of the word repentance: it simply means to turn around.
Changing our minds, seeing that we were wrong and repenting is not a popular thing these days. It flies in the face of our culture of self-sufficiency, of perfectionism and confidence. Admitting our mistakes – intentional or not – pulls at the masks of caring competence we tend to wear. It takes strength and courage to go back and fix what has been said or done.
Sometimes, we have to be in the depths of our messes before we realize how much has gone wrong. Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace tells this story of repentance:
“Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that.’ ‘My messy house’ says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, no such a monster after all, but only human. If the house if messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”
Why not make room for God? Why not find a way to mend, to heal, to reconcile ourselves with God and our neighbor? It seems to me that the parable of the two sons is unfinished. The first son has repented, and gone back to join his father and take care of what needs to be done. But what of the second son? I believe the invitation to repentance is still open to him, and his father is still waiting. I believe it to be true for him because I believe it is true for all of us.
There is never a wrong time to reconcile ourselves with the God who loves us, and it is never too late to turn around and try to do the right thing on the second, third or tenth try. In a perfect world, we would all say the right thing, and then do what we promise. But in this world, we have repentance instead, and Jesus has just issued your invitation, with the promise that God will be waiting when we come back, no matter how messy we are when we show up.