domenica 1 ottobre 2017

«Paenitentia motus abiit»

Jesus is in Jerusalem by now. He has made his triumphal entry into the Holy City and has begun to teach in the temple. And there immediately start disputes between him and the religious leaders—in this case the chief priests and the elders of the people. Among the controversies, Jesus tells three polemical parables. We have read today the first of them; we will read the other two on the following Sundays.

The parable of the two sons is peculiar to Matthew. Maybe we could find something similar in the parable of the prodigal son: even in that case there are two sons, who, more or less, behave like the two sons of today’s parable. The setting of this parable is identical with the one of the parable we heard last Sunday: in both cases a vineyard is mentioned. The difference is that a week ago the master invited some workers to go into his vineyard in exchange for a wage; in this case instead it is the father who simply orders his sons to go and work in the vineyard.

The point of the parable is that one of the sons says that he will not go, but afterwards he repents and goes (paenitentia motus abiit); the other one, instead, replies yes, and then he does not go. What does it mean? Even in this case, like on last Sunday, there are different layers of meaning. On Jesus’ lips, the first son represents tax collectors and prostitutes, that is to say, sinners, who at first rebel against God, but then they repent and do God’s will; the second son precisely pictures the religious leaders, who show themselves faithful to God, but actually are not. Asking the chief priests and the elders which of the two sons did the father’s will, Jesus forces them to condemn themselves. The problem is that, unlike sinners, who know they need repentance, religious leaders think to be righteous, and so they do not feel the need of repentance.

Matthew, including this parable in his gospel, perhaps extends its meaning. We could see in the first son the pagans, who at first had said no to God, but then, at the preaching of the apostles, were converting to the gospel; unlike the Jews, who, after obeying God in the old testament, now were refusing to believe in Christ. Even in this case the problem of the Jews is that they consider themselves the chosen people of God, and so not in need of conversion; while Jesus’ call “Repent, and believe in the gospel” applies to everyone—Jews and Gentiles. 

Of course, there is a third layer of meaning: we can read the parable as referring to ourselves. The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps us to understand this parable: to enter the kingdom of God, it says, “Words are not enough; deeds are required” (n. 546). As Jesus declares in another passage of the gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Christianity is not a question of words, but of deeds. It is true that we are just poor people, who not always are able to carry out their purposes; and it is true that, before God, what matters is the intention. But it is also true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; good intentions are not enough, if they are not followed by our efforts. Maybe, more often than not our efforts are doomed to failure, but at least we have done our best. And that is what matters before God. Good intentions and beautiful words without commitment are useless. The only thing that really matters before God is to do—or at least to try to do—his will. “Whoever does the will of God remains forever” (1Jn 2:17).