Moms, have you ever had to say to your children:
“Do you know how to fill the ice cube trays?”
“Do empty milk cartons belong in the fridge or the trash bin?”
“Do you know the difference between laundry basket and the floor?”
Or, “Toilet rolls do not grow on the holders!”
“Dishes and silverware do not fly to kitchen sink or dishwasher by themselves!”
Parents have dreams for their children. They want the very best for their children. They imagine their children as successful, well-rounded, good manner, good characters, involved, both interested and interesting. Every parent also expects that their children listen to them and obey them. When parents give instructions, they want their children to respond immediately. They don’t want to hear, “I will do it later.” “I will do it after the program ends,” or “when this game is over,” or “when I finish talking to my friends.” They expect their children to do what they ask them to do right away. Parents want and try to map out a course of obedience that will lead their children to success.
But we children do not always do what our parents expect us to do. When I was a kid, most of the time I responded to my parents’ instructions out of fear or out of a sense of obligation. I had to do it or face negative consequences. Parents, however, don’t want children to obey simply out of fear or because they “have to.” Children will not learn to think for themselves and become confident if they only learn to obey out of fear or because they have to. We also do not want a lifetime of over-scheduled calendars for our kids and then act as “helicopter parents” or as a surveillant camera trying to protect our children from mistakes either. Actually it is impossible to do that even some parents have attempted to do so. It seems that children need the freedom to make their own choices in order to grow. We can teach them to think, to reason and to understand right from wrong, to make the choice and to face the consequences. But they have to make the decisions. This means that they will make mistakes. They will not always choose wisely. They will not always do the right things. They will listen to the wild ideas of their peers while the cautions of their parents go unheeded. They will act according to their impulsive desires and instant gratification. They will put off important tasks until the last minute and then fly into a panic. In fact, all of us have gone through these experiences one way or another.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus tells us a story about a parent who had two very different sons. The “No-then-yes son” and the “Yes-but-no son.” The father’s expectation is clear. “Son, go out to work in vineyard today.” He says with authority. This is not just a request. It is also not a recommendation. It is an order. It is also not tomorrow or next week, but today. The first son refuses outright, “No, I will not.” But later changes his mind, stops his rebellion and goes out to the vineyard to work. Despite his initial resistance, he obeys his father.
The second son is more devious. He puts on a good face and immediately agrees to his father's request, “Yes, sir!” He sounds to be a cooperative son. His actions however, do not measure up to his words. He ignores his father's order and never goes to the vineyard. He only talks a good game. He promises much and produces nothing of value.
Jesus asks the critical question, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Some parents might have issued a punishment to both of these boys -- the first would be reprimanded for his rebellious attitude; and the second for actually ignoring the father’s order and did not follow through. Many of us might want to have another son. The one who would say “yes” and faithfully carry out his father’s wish. All parents would be delighted to have a son or a daughter like that. But I don’t think we can find this “perfect son or daughter” among us. None of us, young and old, can say that we have never said “no” to our parents. None of us can say that we have always “obeyed” or we have always carried out the wish that our parents expected of us. There are only two persons, Jesus and Mary, whom we can say that they are perfect son and daughter of God.
So the story reveals that our heavenly Father has hopes and dreams for us. Jesus is telling us that our heavenly Father is the forgiving Father. He is willing to overlook the son’s original disobedient attitude once he realizes that he was wrong and wants to correct his mistakes. The son’s change of mind and heart to correct his mistakes and to carry through his father’s order pleases his father. His father is happy with him. It can be the same with us. There is hope. This story is a story about the change of mind and heart. When we have a change of mind and heart to correct our mistakes and do the right thing, we are heading toward heaven. God is there to welcome us.
Jesus points out the tax collectors and the prostitutes are like the first son. They are headed toward the kingdom. Despite their mistakes of the past, they have now chosen the right route. There are many examples in the Scriptures. Jonah, Moses, Peter, Matthew, Zachaeus, Mary Magdalene, Augustine and many others throughout human history have done that. They have walked the walk, even when it means backtracking from a poorly chosen path, and starting over down the narrow path toward eternal life.
We might have said no to God multiple times. We might say no to God because we're stubborn, afraid, doubtful, or because we want to do something else. Given the choice -- labor in the field, volunteer at the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul, visit the sick, teach CCE classes, join the choir, forgive someone who did you wrong, reconcile with someone estranged from you or spend another hour in front of your computer surfing the internet, checking out Facebook, or watching TV -- what would you choose?
We may say “No” to God because we feel overworked. The first son could have refused his father because he believe he had already done enough. He can excuse himself and have a break. Perhaps he considers his contribution to the family to be extensive. Clearly the father thinks otherwise and is not prepared to offer his son an early retirement package. The father sees what the son is capable of and demands more. The son has a “Who me?” moment -- haven't I already done enough for this family? But at the end, he decides to be cooperative. He goes to the vineyard to work.
We might be tempted to say -- “no, let someone else do it. I've already given.” Or, “that's too much to ask of me”. Or, “I don't think I'm up to that challenge”. The story is good news for anyone who doubts his ability to make a difference and decides not to even try. It is also a story to give hope for anyone who has ever pushed the snooze alarm one too many times and missed an important appointment or late for class. The first son clears the path for naysayers and hesitant, unsure want to-be disciples alike.
It is clear that God does not expect perfection. God wants us to learn from our mistakes, put our failings behind us, and then choose to do the right thing. This story of compassion and forgiveness is good news for anyone who can remember moments of disobedience, times of ignoring the rules, or periods of poor choices, days and months of excuses not to participate in any church’s activities or ministry. For those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, there is a message of welcome and an invitation to try again. Past blunders will not be counted against them when they are followed by both a change of heart and a change of course. God is willing to look past our many weaknesses and failures and invites us to put our earlier bad choices behind us and decide to carry out God’s will and dream for us. It is never too late for us to turn back to God. All that is necessary is to say “Yes” to God, and offer hands, hearts and spirit to God's service. So are you ready to go to the vineyard?