I wish I had a chance to preach the Gospel we have just heard as a children sermon, because I think there are a lot to tell children about this passage – In the meantime, I also acknowledge that this Gospel certainly speaks to the child inside of us, and we certainly need to talk to them from time to time.
So what do we learn in this passage? The chiefs priests and the elders question Jesus’s authority as he teaches in the Temple. We already know that they don’t like Jesus’s teaching because Jesus does not approve of their behavior. The chief priests and the elders are very respectful of the letter of the law, but they forget the spirit of the law – which is to live in love, compassion and forgiveness. They also use religion as a way to have power over people, to gain some honors and privileges. Jesus wants them to change their hearts, but they’re not ready to do it. They’re not ready to admit they’re wrong – and so they question Jesus’s authority so they don’t have to think about themselves.
When we don’t want to do something, we question the source of authority, don’t we? When somebody asks us to do something (or to not do something), don’t we often have this question in the back of our minds: “Who are you, to tell me what I need to do (or not)”? The reason why I’ve said I’d like to preach a children sermon about this passage of the Gospel, is that children are very candid about that, aren’t they? They don’t just question in the back of their minds, when they don’t want to do something, they scream at you: “You’re not my dad!” (if you are not their dad) or “You’re not the teacher!” (if you are their dad). Or the one I like the best, the excuse my sister used with my parents when she was a teenager: “I didn’t ask to be born” (Implying: “But you chose to give me life so deal with it, I’ll do whatever I want”). All of this a way of saying: I cannot acknowledge your authority over me, you have no permission to tell me what to do (or not).
And in a sense, there is no real possible way to argue with that, is it? Unless you enforce your requests upon others with threats, violence or lawsuits, you can’t “make” them – another expression children like to use. Jesus of course, leaves it as it is. He acknowledges that he cannot convince the chief priests, prove his authority, he cannot “make” them.
Jesus gives up, sort of.
And I think this is really interesting because to me, what the Gospel shows us throughout is not so much that the problem is that there are people who behave badly – all of them and all of us behave badly at some point – the heart of the problem is that people don’t want to convert, or, as Jesus puts it in a much more simple way in his parable, people don’t want to “change their minds” when God asks them to. We keep on doing the same mistakes – sometimes just because we’ve been doing them for so long, it’s really hard – as it was for the chief priests and the elders – to acknowledge that we’ve been wrong from the beginning. We just don’t have enough humility, faith or resilience to confess (even to ourselves) that we’ve been careless, that we’ve hurt somebody or made a mess of a situation.
And yet, as I mentioned last week, we need to let the Scriptures ask us questions and we need to let the Scriptures question us and search our hearts so we can change our minds, do the right thing, fix our mess and become more loving, compassionate and forgiving people. According to Jesus, or at least according to his parable, the world isn’t divided between “good people” and “bad people”. According to Jesus, there are two types of people in the world: Those who question their behavior (like the first son), and those who don’t question their behavior (like the second son).
Many people live on the surface of things. As we also talked about last week, we are often people pleaser, aren’t we, just so people will like us back and mirror to us a good version of ourselves so we can like ourselves too. We put on a nice face, sometimes a bit of a fake smile, and as the second son, utter empty promises. Not necessary to deceive, but simply because we cannot help it. We want to please, we want to be pleased with ourselves, and most often we just don’t know who we are. We think that we are really good people and of course we want the good but then life gets real and difficult, in the end self interest prevails or our own prejudices. The second son wants to please his father, wants to be happy about himself, but then he realizes it’s not going to be as fun as he thought to go work in the vineyard, so he just does not do it.
We are not who we believe we are. It’s not easy to spot that in ourselves yet we all know those people who claim not to be racist, not to be stingy or not to be resentful, and yet they don’t have a single friend of color, they will always let you get the check or they haven’t talked to their siblings for years. But those people are us, too, aren’t they? It’s just that we often lack the self reflection, the honesty and humility to take a good look at ourselves and to look not at what’s in our heads, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, who we want to be, but we need the honesty and humility to look at what we actually do (or not) in the world and to others.
I think this is the sense of the parable, Jesus says: what you do or fail to do tell us who you are, not what you say about your intentions or about who you claim to be.
Kant is one of the most famous moralists of all times, and he used to say that in the end, all that matters are good intentions. We cannot control all the consequences of our acts but even if our good intentions set a course of actions that lead to a disaster, it wouldn’t be our fault because we have wanted the good. To that, another philosopher, Hegel, responded with irony: “Your morality has pure hands because she does not have hands at all”. And what Hegel meant by that is that good intentions, the people we want to be in our heads, that can be a start but it’s certainly not enough to live a moral life: To live a moral life, we have to be responsible. We can’t use our good intentions as an excuse. If we mess up, we have to pick up our mess and fix it (as much as we can).
And once again, that’s what we want to teach our children isn’t it? That their actions have consequences and they need to be responsible for the consequences of their actions as much as it is possible to be. Jesus tells us that the difference between the chief priests and the elders on one side and the tax collectors and the prostitutes one the other side is that the latter were willing to acknowledge their mess, change their minds and turn back to God.
The good news is that Jesus tells us it’s never too late to do the right thing. We’ve heard about that last week with the workers of the last hour, and we hear it again today in the parable of the first son. It’s never too late to change your mind and to do the right thing. It’s interesting isn’t it to realize that in our world changing our minds is not often seen as a good thing, whereas in the Gospel it’s the beginning of salvation? Changing our minds, seeing ourselves as we are, the mistakes we have made or just the consequences of our actions, lead us to have power on the world, and change it for the best. In the meantime, as we are responsible for our actions, Jesus never wants us to have to bear the weight of guilt. As we acknowledge our mistakes, we are also forgiven – we don’t remain in our sins – and we are indeed, in real life, converted.