•Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32 • Phillipians 2: 1-13 • Matthew 21: 23-32•
Weekly Scripture Readings: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Flannery O’Connor was a highly regarded Catholic author. Most of her short stories reflect her experience of growing up and living in the South. In homilies I often have referred to her stories. Today I return to her story “Revelation” because I think it is the best illustration I know of Matthew’s parable about “a father who asks two sons to work in the field.”
This parable is simple and the message is clear. Words alone are without value. Matthew’s
Jesus does not want words of faith. He wants genuine, wholehearted live rooted in faith that will clear the way for “God’s new reality” to emerge in us and through us in our world.
Lets situate this parable within the larger context of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus came into
Jerusalem riding a donkey and surrounded by a crowd. He went to the Temple and made room for the blind and crippled to get in. This upset “the high priests and elders of the people.” He left and spent the night in Bethany. When he returned in the morning they were ready for him.
They began to seriously harass him. This provoked Jesus and he responded to them with this simple parable. He uses it to criticize those leaders who claimed superior knowledge of “the Mosaic Law” and observed ritual purity. They spoke the words but their hearts remained closed to the implications of their religion and to his message about “the kingdom of God.”
Here I want to share a summary of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” I think this short story illustrates the meaning of this parable better than anything I know.
The principle character in the story is Mrs. Turpin. She is a southern, white woman, convinced she is an ideal Christian. She has forgotten the clear teachings of Jesus who said, “many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.” She self-righteously marches through life judging individuals and ranking them in what she judges to be “the proper order.”
Mrs. Turpin had an epiphany that causes her to reevaluate her assumptions concerning her specific value in the divine scheme of things. In her vision she sees “a vast horde of souls marching into heaven . . . whole companies of white trash . . . bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics.” At the end of the procession she sees people “who, like herself and her husband, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.” She sees them “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.”
What does all this have to do with us today? My answer presumes this reminder. The passion burning in the heart of Jesus was “the kingdom of heaven.” In him, God’s unconditional love reaches out to everyone. By word and act Jesus showed what God wants for everyone is a fully human life. By word and act he proclaimed that when “God’s new reality” emerges among us, peace and well-being will be shared by everyone and all people will live fully human lives.
I often see Mrs. Turpin in myself. It is so easy to judge individuals and think they ought to be like me. Perhaps it is an aggressive driver, a street person by the bridge or a neighbor. When I do that, I am speaking the words but my heart is closed to “God’s new reality.” It cannot emerge through me and I become an obstacle preventing its emergence.
So I ask myself what does this parable say to me? I hear Matthew’s Jesus pushing or pulling me to make a decision about “the kingdom of God.” I, like all of you, have been asked to “work in the fields.” I have been asked and called to do all I can to allow the emergence of “God’s new reality” through me. I have been asked and called to be the sort of person whose deeds and words promote peace and well-being for everyone.
We cannot imitate Mrs. Turpin and do that. This parable invites you to renew your commitment to imitate Christ. Allow the passion burning in his heart to burn in your own.