Before one can understand a meaning for the Gospel of the twenty sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 21:28-32), one must first see the Gospel reading in its literary context as part of Matt.21. This would mean seeing Matt. 21:28-32 as being ideologically connected with Matt. 21:12-17 and Matt. 21:23-27.
Matt. 21:12-17 speaks of Jesus cleansing the Temple and healing the infirm, while verses 23-27 question Jesus’ authority. The Gospel (Matt.21:12-17) tells us that Jesus is in the Temple area and Matt. 21:23 informs us that Jesus’ chief adverseries are the chief priests and the elders, who are the reputed authorities in/around the Temple.
When the chief priests and elders see an “outsider” cleansing the Temple and healing the infirm, they obviously ask, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus counters this question with another question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”
The chief priests and the elders realized that they would be trapped by this question. If they would have said “heaven” Jesus would surely ask them “Why, then did you not believe him?” If they would have said “human” the people would have come after them since John was well liked by the people. Realizing this trap, the chief priests and elders answerd, “We do not know.” Then Jesus said, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Cleansing the Temple and healing the infirm)
This adversarial exchange led to this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt. 21:28-32.) The parable of the man with two sons touches upon the reality of service motivation. The father asks the first son to go help in the fields. The son says “No,” but then changes his mind and goes. Thus his “No” becomes a “Yes.” The other son is also asked to go to work in the fields. The son says “Yes.” But then he changes his mind, and his “Yes” becomes a “No.” It was the first son, whose “No” became a “Yes,” who did the will of the father.
The principal issue appears to be one of authority facilitated by the proper motivation. Who has it and why? The person who does the will of the Father in terms of being of service to others (the son whose “No” became a “Yes”), and not the person who happens to be in a socially acceptable position of authority guided by traditional policies (the chief priests and elders) is the one who has proper authority. The motivation of service forms the dividing line between those who have God’s authority and those whose motivation is less than service.
What can we learn from the day’s Gospel reading? Undoubtedly, many things. But I would like to suggest what I would call an important lesson, namely, the ABC of Christianity.
First, the “A.” It would be authority. By our Baptism we are given authority not only to be in a close relationship with Jesus, but also the responsibility to be of service to others, namely, by actively reflecting justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and the rest of what we find in the Scriptures. Jesus’ authority came from God. So does ours.
Second, the “B.” This would be belief. If we are to remain properly motivated, then we have to believe in who Jesus is and what he has done. His legitimate criticism of the chief priests and elders was that they didn’t believe in John the Baptist nor his message.
Third, the “C.” This is conversion. The two sons undertook a conversion experience when they were asked to serve. For one the “No” became a “Yes.” And for the other the “Yes” became a “No.” We often find ourselves in sinful situations, and a conversion experience from non-service to service would be most helpful in becoming a true disciple of Jesus. This ABC is a start.