...that we think everyone else has to do it but us.
That’s basically Jesus’s issue with the Scribes and Pharisees this weekend. They want him to be quiet, to change his ways, because he’s preaching the reign of God. They want to know, “Where do you get this stuff? Who told you you could say these things?” And Jesus, rather than engage them, answers with a question of his own: “Was John the Baptist from God, or not?” Now, he has them in the quandary spelled out in story. If they say yes, they have to answer why they didn’t heed his call to repent and be baptized. If they say no, then people will rise against them, because as far as the people were concerned, John was indeed from God. So they have to tell him, “We don’t know.” This is a mistake too, because they’re supposed to know; they’re the religious leaders. They do know, I guess, they’re just afraid to say.
This is where Jesus’s dangerous little parable comes in, about the two sons and the father. The father asks them to do what sons are supposed to do: go out and work in the field. One says, “I will,” and doesn’t. He preserves the family’s apparent honor by speaking obedience to his father, but the family’s needs do not get met, because he doesn’t do his work. The second son refuses to go: “I will not,” he says, but later, “he regrets having said this, and goes.” Regret, the sense that the wrong decision was made, leads him to do what his father asked, and therefore do what the family needs.
Which one, says Jesus, did his father’s will? The funny thing is, in the tradition of Scripture, both answers come down in the bible, though only one makes it authentically. There are, in fact, manuscripts of Matthew which have the answer being, “the one who said yes, and did not go.” This is not a “wrong” answer except in the context of the parable. It shows, in fact, how strong the urge for honor and keeping the status quo intact is: for some, including some Christian scribes, it seems, it’s more important to say “I obey” than to do it. But for Matthew in the retelling of the parable, the meaning is otherwise: we want the family’s business to be done. It’s our own welfare that’s at stake. We don’t need someone who says he’ll go to bat for us, we need someone who steps up to the plate. No matter who it is, or what he’s said in the past, we need someone who will actually get out there and do the work.
Once we’ve made that decision, we’ve opened the doorway to change. We have to accept anyone who has said “no” to life before and now says “yes.” The Scribes and Pharisees are trapped. They acknowledge that the one who did the work, even though he had to regret, change, and do other than he had said, is the one who did the father’s, and therefore the family’s, work. They deny themselves, thus, and the tradition that things always have to be the same in religion, mediated the old way through the old rites and persons, and acknowledge that it is changed hearts and new actions on behalf of the family that matter. And so, collaborators, whores, and outsiders of all kinds are going to come into the reign of God because they were given a new chance and said yes; the gatekeepers themselves will find themselves outside because the family’s work was too big for them, the father’s command to labor not in keeping with their plans. The really good news is that there’s time to change, even for us scribes and pharisees. Roll up your sleeves and get into the dirt.
"Turn around and believe in the gospel." It doesn’t have to be the way Caesar says. There’s a new empire in town, or a really, an older one that doesn’t want to oppress you like Caesar does. The emperor is dead; long live God.
Gathering: Turn Around (Announce the Good News) (Rory Cooney) We actually are working on a new collection of songs, have been for about eight months now, but life keeps happening and we never seem to finish. That's no issue, as you know; there's so much music coming out all the time it's not like there's a dearth of songs. This song is one of the songs in this new batch, one I wrote a couple of years ago on a commission from JustFaith, and with which I'm really happy. I think the call to "turn around," to change, to do something differently, is at the heart of the gospel message today, so it seemed like a good place to start out.
Responsorial Psalm 25: Remember Your Mercies (Rory Cooney) I wrote this song over 35 years ago, I like to say in my “Burt Bacharach/Carpenters” period. But over the years it has evolved, and I think it still captures the longing we feel for God’s mercy, as well as the confidence we have in divine generosity.
Preparation Rite: O Beauty Ever Ancient (Roc O’Connor, SJ). Roc got a lot of votes for “the person I’d most like to date” on Facebook, which I find strange, since he’s a Jesuit priest. I suspect certain confreres of his doing this to drive him nuts. But he is a fun guy, and a caring thinker, who continues to bring his love of God and Christ to the music scene. He was on the campus ministry staff at Creighton University for some time, and was the superior of the Jesuit house there. Recently, he has become part of the Jesuit team at the Gesu, the church on the campus of Marquette University in Milwaukee, which makes him almost a neighbor!
Communion: I Say Yes, My Lord (Donna Peña) I guess I feel that if there were ever a Sunday on which this song is perfect, it's today. Thanks, Donna, for this lovely "digo sí" to God's will.
Sending forth: Change Our Hearts (Cooney) I think this song reflects the call to change which we hear in the first reading and gospel especially. That'll do it for September! Welcome, Autumn.