Many of us may have had an experience of being in a crowded restaurant or a food court where we noticed that someone who had come after us had their order served before ours. If you had already been waiting long for your food to come and now seeing this happen, it would most likely irritate or upset you. You would probably call the waiter and ask about your order and perhaps even verbally express your dissatisfaction of seeing someone else’s order come before yours even though you had your order taken earlier.
Similar to your experience, we read in today’s gospel the irritation and dissatisfaction of Israel’s leaders. The parable of the Two Sons in fact explains the preceding passage where the authority of John the Baptist is being questioned. The two sons in the parable described by Jesus to the chief priests and the elders of the people represent the two groups of people: the first are sinners who repent at the preaching of John; the second are Israel’s leaders, who refused to accept the preaching of John.
Given that Israel’s leaders trace their heritage back to Abraham and see themselves as the chosen race to whom God had made a covenant, Jesus’ words “I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you” surely must have infuriated them. They must have thought, ‘how can these “late comers” be given a place or even served before us… are we not the chosen ones… did we not come first?’
For Jesus it was clear that repentance and living the word of God are at the core of a life of discipleship. In the parable, the first son represents sinners who, by repenting and obeying the Gospel, will enter the Kingdom. While the second son represents hypocritical, self-righteous religious leaders who talk about serving God but actually live in disobedience to the word of God.
Obedience to God’s word does not only require us to keep the rites and rituals. In fact, it must begin and be accompanied with a conversion of heart. The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders of His time was that they were experts in knowing and obeying the law but when it came to applying the law in terms of their relationships, they often failed. They applied the law with authority but failed to apply the law with love which shows itself through compassion, mercy and forgiveness… the doorway to God.
When Jesus started to open the doorway of God’s love to those who were hindered by the religious leaders, His message was attractive to the sinner but a threat to those who considered themselves virtuous. That is why very early in Matthew’s gospel we will hear Jesus saying, “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). As disciples of Jesus, we too are called to lead people to the doorway of God’s love and not be an obstacle or hindrance to them. The longer we have known Christ, the more people we should have led to that doorway. These past few weeks, the Sunday gospels have been reminding us about the virtues of humility, mercy, forgiveness, and generosity. If these virtues then become part of our lives and shared with others, they bring meaning to our rites and rituals. When void of virtues, rites and rituals might easily be reduced to being beautiful ‘ornaments’ with no soul in them – we need to “infuse” the soul of Jesus Christ so that what we celebrate can lead others to the doorway of God. Amen.