26th Sunday, Year A, 27 September, 2020: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
This short parable recalls to my mind an ancient rabbinic saying: I am not what believe, nor am I what I say. I am really what I actually do. The second son, who replies positively to his father’s request, but doesn’t go, may not even realize how negligent he is; he may believe that he is what he says.
The virtue of the first son, who verbally refused his father, is not just his eventual, obedience, but that he could admit—and especially admit to himself—that he was off track and could act differently.
The response and inactivity of the second son is a peculiar problem of devout and religious people. It is not that they are scheming liars or outright hypocrites. It is probably more a question of substituting an actual relationship with God, that risky “experience of God,” with an abstract belief system ABOUT God.
Certainly, not to risk the experiential encounter with God seems a lot safer. I don’t risk upsetting my life, challenging my comfort zone, changing my patterns or losing my cherished delusions. I have the security of a check list of dos and don’ts that justify my conduct and I can find my pious bubble, shared with like-minded people, to reassure me that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. It’s all too easy to relocate my life in my head and think that what I believe and what I say is all that’s needed.
The encounter with God can be frightening, God is so immense, revealing how much I am not in control. No matter how right I feel I am, the illuminating presence of God will inevitably reveal every crack in my façade, every inconsistency in my conduct. The fact that God is ready to meet me with mercy and forgiveness to draw me closer in the divine embrace may not seem worth the humiliation of admitting my neediness. I may not be ready to empty myself of my inflated self-esteem.
And yet, Jesus emptied himself of his equality with God, accepting pain, fear, doubt and death itself. But I’m already mortal. Do I risk losing anything more, in an actual encounter with God, than my delusions, the lies I tell myself, or being petrified in my self-righteousness?