The answer to Jesus’ question seems obvious: the one who did the Father’s will was the first son. Although at first he said he would not do it, he did it and the Father will clearly be more pleased with a son who says he won’t but then does rather than with a son who says he will but then does not.
It is the common teaching of Jesus elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel and throughout the New Testament. ‘Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt 7:21). He is the one who builds his house on rock, hearing the words of Jesus and doing them. The foolish person also hears the words of Jesus but does not do them (Matt 7:24,26). Whoever does the will of his Father is, says Jesus, his brother and sister and mother (Matt 12:50).
James in his letter tells us to be doers of the word and not hearers only deceiving ourselves (James 1.22). Paul talks about faith working through love as the essential activity of the Christian (Gal 5:6) and John in his first letter says that our love must not be simply in word and speech but in truth and in actions (I Jn 3:18).
So that’s all very clear – hypocrisy is a bad thing. Our thoughts and words must be consistent with our actions but if we have to choose between them then it is our actions that are most important. A follower of Christ is seen in how people act not in what they think or say. The saints are those who have ‘done love’ rather than simply admired it or preached it.
In the context of today’s liturgy, of course, the gospel parable is set in a slightly different context. The first reading allows for the possibility of people moving in and out of doing the Father’s will. The one who is a sinner can change to become law-abiding and honest. But the one who is law-abiding and honest can renounce his integrity to become a sinner. God is perfectly just, Ezekiel says, and will treat us according to where we have positioned ourselves: the sinner will die and the honest person will live.
An obvious question though is: when have we positioned ourselves definitively. The text of Ezekiel itself encourages us to think that we can be rescued from sin just as we might lose our integrity and fall into sin. For the New Testament, to have received the gift of the Spirit is to be definitively on the side of Christ, to have been baptised is to have been born again to a new life having died once and for all to sin.
But we know from our own experience – and Christian tradition has acknowledged it – that people do fall away even into serious sin and then, by God’s grace, are drawn back, become contrite and are reconciled to the Church. Not that we can be baptised all over again but the Church has the sacrament of reconciliation. That sacrament is a restoration of the new life of baptism in the one who has squandered it.
Traditionally death has been regarded as the moment when a person is definitively positioned in relation to God’s will, is fixed either as a sinner or as a person of integrity. The older ones among us will remember stories of very good people who commit one mortal sin and are then killed by a bus and it’s off to hell with them for all eternity. That always seemed a bit too simple, as if God had no memory and no understanding of human fickleness. And of course there is a lot more about this in the tradition. Most recently Edith Stein – Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – has written about God’s infinite patience and how it will find a way, respecting human freedom, to outwit the stubborn human will and seduce us (as Jeremiah would say) into the love of God which is what we’ve really wanted all along in spite of ourselves.
And there is also that great second reading from the Letter to the Philippians. We are to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, literally we are to be mindful in the way he was or we are to be practically wise in the way he was. This is what the term used means referring not so much to the mind of Christ as to his mindfulness, his way of being in relation to the Father.
What is being held up to us here is an even more radical possibility where the distinction between what I want and what the Father wants dissolves, or at least is of no further significance. So the gap between saying I will do it and actually doing it disappears and we have the possibility of a third son, the one who both says and does the Father’s will. This is perfectly found, of course, only in Jesus whom we believe to be without sin. Sin continues to distract and disturb us. Sin maintains the gap between our saying and our doing. But our destination is to have the same mindfulness as Jesus: it is where the Spirit is leading us.
The Spirit is the Spirit of love and to become involved in the love of God is to be on a road that will take us to the place where our will is emptied of its own desires … or better put our will has as its fundamental desire simply the will of the Father whom we love so that we do not need to be told ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ but we are taught interiorly by the prompting of the Spirit. ‘You do not need anyone to teach you’, John says in his first letter (2:27). ‘They will all know me and no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother’ God says through, Jeremiah in what he says about the new covenant (31:31).
This following of Christ is not a magical thing, however, because it involves what Paul calls ‘the labour of love’. We see that labour most dramatically in the agony in the garden, where the Son is wrestling with what the Father’s will demands of him. ‘Let this cup pass me by’ is what the Son wants. ‘Let your will not mine be done’ is also what the Son wants. This is his deepest desire, to do what the Father wants, to bring his human will into line with the will of the Father and to cross that most difficult of gaps between knowing what is good and assenting to it and being able actually to carry it out, to see it through.
We have the consolation of his struggle and his example. We have the help of the Holy Spirit, the love of God that has been poured into our hearts to make us the loving children of God also.
You can listen to this homily being preached here.