Jesus warns that prostitutes and tax-collectors may be closer to God than their supposed betters. Social or religious privelege means little in the sight of God. The parable of the two sons, neither of whom does what he says he will do, highlights the dictum that "actions speak louder than words." Doing good actions is better than speaking fine words
Yet you say, "The way of the Lord is unfair." Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.
Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders: "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, "Son, go and work in the vineyard today." He answered, "I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, "I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."
Until around 1900, bishops in Ireland were chosen only from the ranks of the aristocracy. Of course, there was a good economic reason for this: they had to be self-supporting because the people were too poor to pay them. But it was equally true in wealthy countries like France. There too the first requirement in a bishop was that he be from the ranks of the nobility. The great mass of the lower clergy, parish priests and curates, were excluded from bishoprics. Some of the trappings of aristocracy still survive in the church, titles like "princes of the church," living in "palaces', forms of address like "Your Lordship" and offering a ringed hand to be kissed rather than shaken. One of the last aristocratic appointments in Ireland was appointed Bishop of Cork, where he served for twenty-three years. When his brother, Lord Dunboyne died, he abandoned the Catholic church, became a Protestant and married to ensure an heir to the family. Ironically, he failed to produce an heir. Rome had lost a bishop while the Dunboyne lineage died out.
The beginning of the end of the aristocratic world came when the French Revolution abolished hereditary titles and made all citizens equal before the law. The world of the common man was begun and now what titles remain are largely honorary. But old habits die hard, and not only in the church. A new elite has replaced the old. Aristocrats have given way to plutocrats. The exclusive world of privilege never really dies. It only changes hands. The modern rich have all the trappings of the old nobility, save the titles. They live in security-guarded palatial homes and frequent exclusive clubs, to protect them from contamination from the common herd.
The need for exclusivity and superiority seems imbedded in human nature and has invaded even the sanctuary. The Jews were happy with their exclusivity, excluding not only pagans from God's favour, but even the Samaritans who failed their rigid test of orthodoxy. Jesus was indignant when he told the chief priests and elders, "Prostitutes and tax-collectors are making their way into the kingdom of God before you." From the Jewish elders to Calvin's elect, to our own former mantra "outside the church there is no salvation', exclusivity is a temptation to religious people. With the diminishing numbers of church-goers and religion no longer a mass phenomenon, we may be more than ever tempted to circle the wagons. So Jesus' warning to the Jews has a special relevance for us today, as a warning against seeing the church as a "Members-Only" Club.
A theme common to all three readings is that of changing one's mind. Our capacity to change our minds leaves us open to hazard and to hope; hazard when we choose to "renounce our integrity and to commit sin, hope when we choose to renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest" (Isaiah.)
Today's Gospel illustrates the value and nobility of revising our decisions. The first son "thought the better of it." He was open to change, to better thoughts. The second son was set and closed. The ability to change one's mind is essential to all healthy relationships. A mind that is closed, whether from pride, stubbornness or stupidity, tends to destroy all relationships--e.g., when we refuse to admit a mistake, when we are unwilling to apologise and change our ways, when we persist in prejudice against a person or group, when we think we know it all. The second reading (Philippians) talks of a more specific and positive change of mind: "in your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus', or as an older translation put it, "let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus." This is the direction in which we must be constantly changing our minds day by day.
Paul emphasises one aspect in particular of the mind of Christ--his humble openness and self-emptying in contrast to the conceited grasping and clinging of Adam: "he did not cling to (or grasp at) his equality with God (as Adam did in Eden) but emptied himself.."
Ever since Adam, we are have a tendency to cling and grasp to what we have. The new-born baby needs a tight grip, and as we get older the grip often gets stronger. Clinging permeates all of life; we cling to people (possessiveness) ; to things (greed) ; to power and position (ambition) ; we cling to opinions (pride.) At the root of our clinging lies fear and insecurity. The apparently strong person who clings aggressively to set ways or ideas is in reality full of fear. Notice your physical reactions to fright; you clench up and grasp at something or someone, as a frightened child clings to its mother.
In the Buddhist tradition, clinging is seen as the root of all suffering. When you are unhappy, it can be enlightening to pursue the question "What am I clinging to?" It might be an idea, a plan, an expectation, power, possessions, reputation, a place, a person, health, even life itself. All wise traditions recommend a light grasp of everything. Anxious clinging leads to misery. As soon as we begin to relax our tight grasp and let go, we begin to be free and happy. ("Letting go" is a useful modern equivalent for "self-emptying.")
Jesus did not cling. He knew that reality could be trusted, because at the heart of reality is "Abba--dear Father," and that underneath everything, even death, are the everlasting arms. So he did not cling even to life, "accepting death, death on a cross." "Into your hands,. I commend my spirit." May this mind be in us which was in Christ Jesus.
The basic thought of the Gospel reading is well expressed by the Isaiah passage: "My thoughts are not your thoughts." Try as one will, it is impossible to find a way in which the payment of the workers in the vineyard could be said to be fair. The owner is generous to the last comers, but why is he not generous to the others as well? It is simply that there is no reckoning up deserts when man meets God.
In the time of Christ Judaism had reached a legalistic state, and the mentality was definitely prevalent that salvation could and must be earned. There was a host of commands which must be fulfilled, and men were divided into two classes, the righteous who were on the road to salvation by fulfilling the commands, and the unrighteous, outcasts despised by those who kept the law. It was this slot-machine conception of God that Jesus opposed by his emphasis on love, for in love there is no calculation of duties, rights and obligations; there is only an open-handed giving without counting the cost, and a grateful receiving. We can never say that we have earned our salvation, or anything from God, but can only stand suppliant before him. The latest workers in the vine-yard have not earned what the owner gives them, and the mistake of their envious colleagues is to think that they can deserve well of the owner.
The most devout Christians often secretly find it a little hard to stomach that someone who repents on his deathbed is admitted to the kingdom no less than those who have struggled and suffered all their lives for God's cause. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. Not only does it presuppose the commercial attitude of reward and punishments from God, but also it neglects the nature of love. The sole relationship of the believer to God must be personal relationship of love, and as such it is its own reward, for it brings happiness also in this life. The greater the struggle and the suffering, the more a Christian turns to God and finds comfort--often the only comfort--in the security of his love and fidelity. But furthermore, fidelity through a long life does bring some advantage over a skimped final conversion, for it may well be--though this is perhaps not invariably so--that the relation-ship of love has so deepened over the years that the Christian, conformed over a long period to the image f Christ, has more capacity for the full enjoyment of God's company than he who comes to know God only at the last moment. Here it is not a matter of God giving a greater reward, but man being more capable of receiving it.
Of this deep and rewarding relationship with God and with Christ Paul shows himself in the second reading to be the perfect example. Writing as he does under persecution he is yet filled with the joy of Christ. His life is already united with Christ's life, and he longs for the fulfilment of final union.