Tell me now, which of these two sons did the will of his father?” They answered him, “The first one.” Jesus said, “You’re right. For many sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes are going into God’s kingdom realm 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32) This, of course, would have been offensive to Jesus’ hearers, for he was speaking to the religious leaders of his day. This story of The Two Sons is about entry into the Kingdom of God, something dear to these same religious leaders. The son who dishonoured his father by openly refusing to do his will represents sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus speaks of. His change of mind Jesus likens to these same sinners listening to John the Baptist’s call to repent and changing their ways, changing their initial ‘No’ into a ‘Yes.’ Thus do they come into the Kingdom. Being a sinner does not exclude a person from the Kingdom; there’s hope for all of us!
Jesus’ beef with the religious leaders, which he will spell out a little later in this Gospel, is that they do not practice what they preach. (Matthew 23:3) Thus, in this parable, they are like the son who says, ‘Yes,’ but does nothing about doing as his father asked; they know what God wants, but they do not do it, and so they do not enter the Kingdom. Jesus is not saying that they cannot enter the Kingdom. The way into it is the same as for the sinners they so despise: they must repent and change their ways; they must become doers of the Law, and not just hearers of it, as St Paul has it. (Romans 2:13) Or as John the Baptist put it to them when they went to him for baptism: “If you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit.” (Matthew 3:8) In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that, to get into the Kingdom, it is not enough just to say the right thing. Rather, we must do the right thing. As the Jesus put it earlier in this Gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Our faith has a practical aspect to it: We must walk the talk, as Americans like to put it.
But it is not just any kind of good and pious doing that God in Jesus is interested in having us do. In Jesus’ story of The Tax Collector and the Pharisee, the Pharisee goes into the Temple and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:11-12) These are all good and admirable things. Yet Jesus says of him that he did not go home from prayer at rights with God. What Jesus is getting at, Isaiah also tackled in his own day — it is a problem for religious people, even in our own day. So God says through Isaiah to those who aim at just doing the ‘right thing’: “Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, GOD, would like? This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering illclad, being available to your own families.” (Isaiah 58:5-7. C.f.: Matthew 25:34ff)
What God in Jesus wants is for us to really listen to him (Matthew 17:5), to attend to what he is saying with the ears of our heart, as Benedict would put it, so that we might translate God’s Word to us into something practical that shows we have heard and understood what God is saying to us. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1, 35) We all have areas in our life wherein what we do is at odds with our being in the Kingdom, and no amount of ‘good deeds’ will make up for it. The longer we listen to God’s Word, the harder it is to keep these things hidden (C.f.: Genesis 3:10); sooner or later we will hear God challenging us to repent of them. (C.f.: Acts 9:4) Then, as Benedict puts it, ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:10) God’s Word is a personal word, a word personal to me, calling me to enter his Kingdom, to give up what I am doing that bars my entry to it. (C.f.: Genesis 3:24)
So, if my thing is, say, to cheat the powerless poor by underpaying them because I can get away with it (c.f.: Luke 3:10-14), as many wealthy have been found to be doing in our own times, I can expect to hear God challenge me to repent of this: “In so far as you do this to one of these least brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Unless I stop this sinful practice — not because I have been shamed into it by being found out, but just because it is wrong — I will not be able to enter the Kingdom. We need to let the at times harsh light of God’s Word shine on all that we do and ask ourselves, “Am I really doing God’s Will?” (Matthew 21:31) And in this way, little by little, slowly turn ourselves from all that we do that would exclude us from the Kingdom. (C.f.: Matthew 25:41ff) We need to be convicted that what we are doing is wrong so as to produce in us a desire to turn from it. It is an ongoing process that will eventually tackle even the little things we do that are incompatible with life in the Kingdom, till at last we do what is right just because it is right. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:68-69; Luke 8:21) This is what it means to repent; this is how we get into the Kingdom — this how we open ourselves to ‘changing our minds’ about all those things in which we have been saying, ‘No,’ to the Lord when he asks us to go work in his vineyard, turning them into a more longer lasting ‘Yes’; this is how we are ‘conformed to the image’ of him who came ‘not to do his own will but the will of him who sent him,’ the one whose life is characterised by his “Yes” to God. (Matthew 21:29; Romans 8:29; John 6:38; Matthew 26:39)