The man went and said to the first son,
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.
The passage of Matthew’s gospel we have just read is a continuation, the third episode if you will, in the parables of the Kingdom series. Earlier we looked how following Jesus has the potential to completely transform the world and the society we live in, as Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast used to leaven the dough. Today Jesus teaches us on how the same Kingdom should also completely transform each one of us as he compares his followers to both a man and a merchant who drastically change their lives after discovering something amazing.
The parables of the treasure and of the pearl seem to mirror one another but their small differences gives us complementary views of what the Kingdom of Heaven should mean for every Christian. On one hand the treasure represents the sum of the many, abundant blessings and graces the Lord bestows on us through faith; the treasure also speaks to us of the joy of knowing Christ as we read that, once the man discovers the treasure he ‘goes off happy’ (Matt 13:44). On the other hand, the pearl represents the incomparable beauty of following the Lord through a life of faith, something that, once experienced, exceeds everything else. Both the treasure and the pearl show their splendour freely and openly to the characters in the parables, and in the same way the gospel and Christian teachings can be looked up openly and freely by anyone, but just looking at them is not enough. Much like the Hunchback of Notre Dame says in the story ‘Life is not a spectator sport’, so to look at the treasure that is the knowledge of Christ and to behold the beauty of the pearl that is following him is not what the Lord intends for us. We are not meant to be spectators, and after discovering the treasure and the pearl we must do our best to acquire them for ourselves, to lay hold on of the blessings and beauty of the Christian life, and to get involved in it.
But how do we do acquire the treasure and the pearl? The parables say that both characters invest all their fortunes to make their purchases. Then, in the same way, each one of us should sell everything he or she owns and buy the treasure…
Later on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus instructs a prospective disciple saying,
‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ (Matt 19:21).
And in another place he also says,
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven’ (Matt 6:19).
So we could take the teaching of these parables as a commandment and strive to follow it face value. By dispossessing ourselves for the sake of the following Jesus and out of compassion for others we would certainly trade in our riches for blessings, and acquire treasures in heaven, taking hold on the pearl of great beauty that is the Christian life.
But there is another way of interpreting the parables. Selling everything we own, should first of all represent emotional detachment from the things of this world and its affairs. Actually giving away all that is superfluous is incredibly generous and highly honourable, but it would do us little spiritual good if then we found ourselves immersed in resentment and ungratefulness… So when the parable says that the men sold everything, this should speak to us about freeing ourselves of those emotions, things, and bad habits that distract us from God or actively lead us away from him.
The blessedness, beauty, and unquenchable joy of following Jesus stands before us each day as the most valuable treasure or the rarest of pearl. Let us then each day make an effort to rid ourselves of anger, envy, self-centredness, and spiritual apathy so that by trading in joy, gratitude, selflessness, and devotion from the Lord we may have enough to purchase for ourselves the treasures of the Christian life, and in the world to come, the life of heaven. Amen.
Today’s gospel is a suitable sequel to last week’s Parable of the Sower with the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat which provides us with a detailed illustration of God’s Kingdom as a fertile wheat field. Among the many teachings one could draw from this parable, I would like to focus on the warning Jesus gives us about the dangers of judging and alienating one another when difficulties arise within the Church.
We read that ‘When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well;’ and the owner of the crop ‘said to the servants “...when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest”’.
Here Matthew uses a Greek word, zizanion, for the weeds that is not found anywhere else in the New Testament and scholars still argue about the true nature of this invasive plant that plagues the crop. But however this may be the darnel is for Matthew like “bad wheat” that closely resembles the good one, but stunts its growth and produces useless grains. Likewise, within the Church we have good and bad wheat that closely resemble each other. Here too, there often seems to be a little apparent difference between committed Christians and those who, though part of the same field, do very little apart from stunting the growth of the Church and producing useless fruits.
So why doesn’t the owner want to get rid of the weeds here and now when they cause so much trouble? To put it plainly, because if we took matters in our own hands we would not be capable of judging without making a great, big mess of it. The good and the bad wheat are so similar that we would end up uprooting both of them. We cannot judge properly, it is not our duty and – as the gospel tells us – we would not be able to do so. We may be surrounded by pseudo-Christians; we may live in a nation that claims to be Christian, but fails miserably to act as such. But as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to bear with the present obstacles, the present situation without judging one another or acting holier-than-thou.
To be the good wheat is truly and essentially our Christian vocation, the call to which we responded in baptism. Each of us should only strive to produce as many good fruits of prayer, love, and justice as one can whilst refrain from judging or alienating others, leaving judgment to the one who knows better than ourselves. The owner of the crop
‘said to the servants “...when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest”’.
There is only one person who can judge between the good and the bad grains and he is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and no-one else. He is the owner of the crop who will instruct the angels to separate the good wheat from the bad at the end of time. He is the one to whom judgment and power belong. And so, when he we come to harvest his crop, may he find us joyful in hope, patient through difficulties, generous to others, and persevering in prayer. Amen.
Jesus said, ‘Imagine a sower going out to sow…
some seeds fell on rich soil and produced their crop,
some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.’
The place where I grew up, much like Houghton Regis, used to depend heavily on agriculture (and then also factories) for its economic wellbeing. Late in autumn farmers went out to sow the seeds for the next year’s crops of wheat and corn in straight, well-spaced rows that covered every fertile bit of ground. But at no point in time I saw any farmer going out to scatter seeds in the haphazard way described by in today’s gospel. Who in their right mind would sow seed on the edge of a path, or among thorns, or on rocky soil? And why would anyone waste precious seed on four types of soil, when only one of them will produce sure returns, sure crops?
But the parable is not there to be taken literally. It is here to illustrate God’s generosity beyond measure and his abundant love for us, and to make us reflect on how we respond to this love. As we have read, the farmer sows his seed far and wide regardless of his returns, so God sows his word among us, regardless of how we are going to commit to him. With God there is no strategic deployment of resources only for those who might go on to be saints; everyone is invited to receive the message of gospel, and then to freely commit to Christ according to their means and desires.
Then the parable illustrates through its use of language borrowed from agriculture, a language that was once common to most people, how most people fall in four categories when it comes to living the Christian life. And through this explanation Jesus invites each one of us to ask ourselves: how do I receive the Word of God?
As we read, there are people who don’t understand the word of the Kingdom of God, those who do not get the point of religion, and so evil steals away what was sown in their hearts. We can hope we are not in this group, but we might be, especially when we are prevented to commit to faith because of the evil circumstances that we sometimes witness; “How can God allow that?” or “Why has this happened to me?” we might ask, and in doing so we put up obstacles for God to reach us; and, as it were, we make the soil of our hearts hard and inhospitable. The second group are those who hear the word and receive it immediately with joy but when difficulties come, these people immediately fall away. Hopefully we are not like that either. Then there are people who hear the word but then anxieties of daily life take up all the room leaving no space for God and the lure of a comfortable life choke the word so that it ends up bearing no fruit. We might be like that but we can hope not. We want to be like the last group of people mentioned by Jesus: the people who hear the word, understand it in their hearts, and committing to religion, bears fruit!
However, the reality is that probably we belong to each of those various groups at various times. Jesus is not telling us a parable to condemn us or to shame us but to invite us to change our ways of living so that we can be more consistently in that last group.
Wherever each of us finds themselves right now, Jesus is gently inviting us to do better, to improve the soil of our hearts – for want of better words – to deepen our commitment to him, and so going on to produce a plentiful harvest of good works.