Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time • Year A

John D. Merkelis, O.S.A.
Providence Catholic High School
New Lenox, Illinois

Readings
Ez 18:25-28
Ps 25:4-5,8-9,10,14.
Phil 2:1-11 or Phil 2:1-5
Mt 21:28-32

You can’t judge a book by its cover!

It’s nice, or at least clear, when what we say matches what we do. It’s called integrity, which expresses honesty and inspires trust. “She is who she says she is!” communicates confidence and steadfastness. It is a compliment to be “the real thing.” In the negative, the old adages and time-honored proverbs in our language display a healthy mistrust when it comes to making judgements: “All that glitters is not gold.” The gospel today addresses this in Jesus’ very thought-provoking parable.

A parable is a story with a hook in it. It is entertaining, and on first look offers insight. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Its aftereffects linger and stay in your mind and on your heart; it invites us to think a little deeper. Today’s story is a great example.

A man asks his sons to work in the vineyard. One says “Yes,” and does not go. It’s easy to say what someone wants to hear; the real work is following through in action. The other son says “No,” initially. However, after thinking about it, he does the father’s will. He amends his response and does the right thing.

In the story, nothing is as it seems. The first son seems respectful to the father but will ultimately be a disappointment. The second son comes off insensitive, but will honor his father by fulfilling his request. I guess it is tough to judge a book by its cover.

That’s precisely the point!

Why do I like this parable so much? Because it speaks to my experience of life, and my experience of myself. God gives us life with particular gifts and talents that will take the better part of our life to discover, understand and integrate. The “proving ground” of our identity will be made up of such moments. In the early stages of the journey I might say what people want to hear in order not to disappoint them, with no intention of carrying through. The outer appearance matters more than the internal substance. At times I will not be discovered, or the issue will be of such small significance that my contradiction will not matter. At other times I will learn from the internal pain of hypocrisy (or the painful consequences of hurting others in my decision) that it is unjust to lead people on; this causes disharmony and inconsistency, both of which stymy normal and healthy human development. Maturity is when our actions and our words match.

In this process, as I reflect on the events in my life, I encounter the meaning of “conversion,” the ability to amend a decision or direction with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I grow by making some decisions that I regret, which offers the opportunity to change my assessment and my actions in the future. My mother once told me not to touch a hot iron. I did! The subsequent burn was an effective lesson: I have not touched another one since!

Jesus uses the parable to expose the outwardly observant religious authorities, who can say the correct thing but are empty when it comes to recognizing true holiness, particularly in the teaching of John the Baptist. On the other hand, the “outwardly sinful” tax collectors and prostitutes lined up to hear John’s preaching and accept his baptism. In this scenario, which group is truly doing the will of God?

Prayer is the foundation for a genuine response to the Love of God. As is humility, beautifully articulated today in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. When I pray, I learn to sense the presence of God in myself, and in the events of my life. Prayer helps me to weigh the evidence that is unseen which exercises caution when things seem too good to be true, and offers hope to those in need of a second chance. Prayer is also the primary way to help discern the difference between those who talk the talk from those who walk the walk.