REFLECTION: “Pastoral Problems”
Our Gospel reading today follows on the heels of what we heard proclaimed yesterday, so let me take a moment to backtrack. The religious leaders had gathered around Jesus... this is at the end of his public ministry, just before his death. They start asking about the authority under which he operates. They refuse to answer the question he poses about John's authority, that he might make the point that both he and John are operating under the same authority, that of the Father in heaven.
In our Gospel today, Jesus offers the first in a series of parables that illustrate his underlying attitude towards the religious leaders of his day. In the parable, we encounter a son who does what he is told after refusing... in other words, a repentant son... and a son who claims he'll do as he is told, but fails to do so.
To fully understand this parable, it is vital to recognize how sons, even adult sons, were expected to behave in the cultural context of ancient Palestine. The prevailing culture of the region demanded honor and obedience to the parents, and that demand was especially heightened when they still lived on the father's estate. To refuse to serve your father while you still lived on his land was an outrage that required repentance. Yet, saying you'd serve and then never following through... that was even worse.
Both were sinners, both needed to repent and have their father/son relationship restored, and both are examples of what was happening in the time of Jesus.
The people of Israel were living on their Father's land. Thus, honor and obedience was required. John, as he preaches, converts from among the people those willing to repent and renew their relationship with the Father, as does Jesus. These people, formerly in rebellion against God, now find a new hope in the way of righteousness, as set forth for them in the preaching they hear and the living that is modeled for them. They become the remnant spoken of in our first reading.
The religious leaders, on the other hand, claim to be doing the will and work of the Father, but are, in fact, not doing so. They are represented in the parable by the son who claimed he'd work for the father, but who then failed to do so. He, instead, enjoyed the father's estate, presumably until he was discovered for his falsehood. And punishment, even of adult children, was harsh for such falsehood.
Today, Jesus teaches us that the mantle of religiosity has nothing to do with redemption and renewal. It has no bearing on our kingdom relationship with the Father. An ongoing recognition of our shortcomings, an honest appreciation of our failures, a sincere desire to repent, and actions that manifest that repentance are what count as we seek to grow in holiness and grace on the journey that leads to Yahweh's side in eternity.
Such growth in holiness and grace does not come in a spiritual vacuum. Though we are poor in Spirit, we are promised, in the words of the Psalmist today, that 'those who look to [Yahweh] for help will be radiant with joy' and that 'He will redeem those who serve him'.
Preparations for that growth of holiness, grace, peace, and reliance on God are not always easy. We must become lowly and humble... indeed, this is what God will work in us. Don't mistake this for becoming doormats. Lowliness and humility do not require that. But we must become glad and willing subjects of the Father, nurtured and strengthened by the Spirit, and led in the pathway of renewal by the preaching and example of the Son.
This isn't a worldly virtue... and frankly, as we hear today, it isn't always a religious virtue either. It is a virtue that comes through a living relationship the one who is the Source of all created things... Yahweh Sabaoth. To him be glory forever!
Consider today: "Where do I fail to yield my mind, my spirit, and my body to God's commands?" and pray that the Spirit of God would conform your life to Christ's lived example, so that your communion with the Father would grow deeper day by day.