Actions count more than words, but the Christian should say "yes" and follow through
At the very early morning Mass one unsuspecting Tuesday in the Seminary, a venerable and gentle priest began his admirably short homily with a list – an amazing list of all sorts of people, people of different ethnic groups and nationalities, various lifestyles and unsavory occupations and habits, one after the other, using succinctly only the most shocking, politically incorrect and socially unacceptable vulgar racial, national (and other) epithets to describe them. We were all, needless to say, suddenly quite wide awake; this was not the beginning of your ordinary homily.
Now, the high standards of this website together with just plain good taste forbid me from reproducing the actual terms he used, but I imagine you’ve heard most, if not all, of them somewhere, but probably not in a homily. I think you get the picture.
After having listed all these colorful terms, he simply said: “You will be surprised by the people you meet in Heaven.”
You can imagine what everyone was talking about at breakfast that morning.
While I would not recommend his rhetorical approach, the truth is that I have never forgotten the homily, even after many years, nor have I forgotten the raw power of the shock it gave me. The Gospel, as a famous phrase pointedly reminds us, is meant to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
And this is exactly what the Lord Himself was doing when he dared – dared! – to tell the chief priests and the elders that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before they would.
And while Jesus did not quite use racial slurs to make His point, we can hardly imagine how scandalous, how offensive, how rude it was in that society to be called either a tax collector or a prostitute (not that it’s particularly friendly today, pace to any IRS employees), especially if you were one of the good guys, so to speak: the priests, the elders, the ones who were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
And to make it worse, this presumptuous upstart, this self-proclaimed rabbi (with a whiff of blasphemy about him), had just led the priests and elders into a brilliant trap, the same trap we often fall into. “Which son,” he asked them, “did his Father’s will? The one who said ‘Yes’ but didn’t go, or the one who said ‘No’ but went into the field?” In truth, He was asking them (and us, right now!) “Which son are you?”
They, of course, being intelligent, gave the obvious and correct answer: “the one who actually went into the field, even though he’d said ‘No’.” And with that they denounced themselves!
In their self-righteousness (an ailment to which we, too, are susceptible), they saw themselves as the Sons (of Abraham, thereby belonging to God) who are saying ‘Yes!’, who were saying ‘yes’ in all that they did, in the keeping of the Law, in their prayers and fasting (all of which is, by the way, most excellent). And they thought that was enough.
But in the parable, the son who says ‘yes’ is not the one who does his father’s (or Father’s) will. He does not go into the field. Because going into the field means following Christ. But before one can follow Christ, one must – as the son who said ‘no’ did – turn around. The Scripture tells us that “he afterwards changed his mind” (which could also be “he repented” or “he regretted”); there is, of course, a deeper sense in this phrase, both in Greek and English, that of a conversion, a turning around.
And that’s why the tax collectors, the prostitutes and so many of those other messy sinners who’ve been up to no good – saying ‘no’, as it were – are marching into the Kingdom: not because they’ve said ‘no’ – that doesn’t get you anywhere – but because they’ve turned around, had a change of heart, a conversion.