Saturday, September 24, 2011

Of ideal sons and daughters and the God of second chances (Reflections on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matt. 21:28-32)

As I was preparing for today’s Mass, reflecting upon the readings, and doing a little bit of research on the Gospel narrative, I came upon an interesting little story entitled, “The Story of the Third Son”.

“A man came to his first son and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today’. The son said in reply, ‘Yes sir’, but he didn’t go. He then came to his second son and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today’. The son said, ‘I will not’, but afterwards changed his mind and went to the vineyard.

As he was working, he noticed someone approaching from the distance. It was his youngest brother—their father’s third son. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked his youngest brother. ‘Oh, father asked me to work with you in the vineyard. And I said ‘yes’.’ And these two sons worked in the vineyard until sunset when their father sent for them and welcomed them home.

It’s a clever retelling of the story, and although it’s not what we find in the gospel reading, it does help us understand the point Jesus was making.

The ideal son is not the one who said ‘yes’ and didn’t go.

Neither is it the son who said ‘no’ and then changed his mind.

The ideal son is the one who says ‘yes’ and actually does what his father asked of him.

But why did Jesus only talk about two sons and not a third one who said ‘yes’ and kept his word? Why did he talk instead of two, neither of whom was the ideal? Why did he leave a spot, some kind of ‘hole’ or ‘gap’ in his story? Who’s supposed to fill it? Who’s supposed to be the third son?

That spot is for you and I to fill. That’s what Christ is inviting us and challenging us to do. He isn’t telling us to be the son who says ‘no’ then changes his mind. He’s saying, be like the son who says ‘yes’ and keeps his word.

That’s the son or daughter God wants. And I’m sure we’d all agree that that is the kind of person we would all want to be. We want to be the person who keeps his word. Who wouldn’t want to be the ideal son?

But there’s another reason why Jesus only talks about two sons instead of a third one who’s the ideal type. He knows fully well that none of us can really fit the bill. And we know it too. None of us is really the ideal type. For one reason or another, we all fall short of being the person we want to be.

There’s this man who was writing to fellow Christians about himself, and he says: “Whenever I stop and think of the crazy, stupid and sinful things I’ve done in my life, I’m amazed God still forgave me and gave me a second chance”. It's a paraphrase, of course; but that's Saint Augustine speaking, telling us of his former evil ways.

We’ve all done crazy, stupid and even sinful things in our lives, whether as young men or women or as adults. Some of them in fact embarrass us when we remember them. At one time or another, we’ve all said ‘yes’ to God, and then failed to keep our word.

The good news is that God is the God of second chances. We may not be the ideal son, but we can always be the son or daughter who said ‘no’ at the beginning, but then changes his mind and obeys the Father.

And most Christians, even the saints, are really second-chance people: St. Augustine fathered an illegitimate child, Francis of Assisi was quite the irresponsible youth, Saint Ignatius was a hired mercenary before he founded the Jesuits. Matthew was a hated tax collector and Mary Magdalene was supposedly a woman of ill-repute.

“We have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God”, St. Paul says. We can certainly try to fit the bill of the ideal son. But if we can’t, we can always be the son who may have said ‘no’ but then changes his mind.

We may not be the ideal son or daughter who says “yes” and then acts on his or her word, but God loves us nonetheless. We may have failed him many times. But he’s always more than willing to give us another chance.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)