Warming up with his audience, Jesus told them this parable (Matthew 21:28-32).
A father asked his first son to work in the vineyard. The son initially said ‘no,’ but changed his mind and did as he was told. The second son was given the same command; he said ‘yes’ but never went.
Wanting to interact with his listeners, he queried: Which of the two did his father’s will?
His listeners, the high priests and the elders of the people, must have gotten the cue. Having aligned themselves on the stance of the first son, they replied, perhaps even gloating: the first!
What Jesus said next shocked them: Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.
Prostitutes and tax collectors are professions which were at the lowest scale of the Jewish society that time. And they were just compared to these. But Jesus saw it right that they needed to be awakened to this reality.
Their insincerity has just won for them an honor lower than the groups of people they look down upon. Their sense of entitlement–tied with the offices they held–blinded their eyes in preaching the Law which they themselves never followed.
And when a messenger came in the person of John the Baptist to point this out, they never bothered to listen, much less, to heed him.
Unlike them, the prostitutes and tax collectors—these lowly sinners—who said ‘no’ initially, repented when they heard the exhortation of John the Baptist. Jesus just gave them the ticket to enter the Kingdom of His Father.
The hypocrites may have their turn only after the prostitutes and tax collectors.
There are two things which set the first son different from the second. These two differences earned for him the title “the obedient son” and the latter, “the wicked one.”
First, is change. There was the transformation in the first son which never took place in the second. We ought not judge a person’s future because he did wrong in the past. This is evident in Ezekiel’s call of renewal in the first reading: “But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.” God continues to call us toward conversation and transformation. Let us not be hard on others who struggle to be good. Likewise, let us also be good on ourselves who fail and stand up, but fails again.
Second, the change of mind became only apparent when there came in between the former self and the new self: a realization that something crooked needs some straightening out. There came the humility to recognize one’s fault and the resolve to do better. St. Paul echoes this piece of advice in his letter to the Philippians in our second reading today: “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,” an important detail which the chief priests were not mindful of. Perhaps because their bloated ego couldn’t hear the soft whisper of John the Baptist.
Hopefully, these two points may help us choose the first over the second, because as we struggle to do good and avoid evil, we realize that the tale of the two sons is our tale, too.