As the atmosphere grew tense in Jerusalem, our Lord spoke the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32). When the priestly cast and constituted authorities challenge His claims, Christ throws off any mantle of harm less philanthropy in which the lukewarm souls would cloak Him. Here is no romantic “Sage of Galilee.”
At the age of twelve, Jesus called this Temple His Father’s house, and now that intimation of divinity becomes more discomforting to the Temple’s clerical caretakers. The priests and elders had made many promises to God; the Law was full of them, and it would break hearts to think that there would be no Messiah to make them all worthwhile. But John had preached the Messiah, and they had failed to believe him.
The problematic rabbi from Nazareth will not be intimidated by their disdain for Him. He attacks. There were two sons who promised to help out in the vineyard. The scene is more intimate than the parable of the laborers (Matthew 20:1-16), where the vineyard was grander and the owner richer. The moral focus here is narrowed to a delicate examination of conscience, the glory of an honest man and swamp gas for the liar.
One son tells his father flat out that he will not work for him. He is no hypocrite, but that alone will not get him a day on the Calendar of Saints. A man may follow his conscience all the way to heaven, but he may follow it all the way to hell, too. Publicans and harlots will go to heaven before the self-righteous hypocrites, but not because of publicanism and harlotry. They repented and believed John. The son is saved because eventually he does go to work.
The second son makes florid promises and is a darling for it, but he does not mean what he says. Here is every dishonest politician on inauguration day, every spoiled youth making marriage vows with the ink still wet on a premarital agreement about dividing property. Here too is the sad fellow who became a priest to please the family or hide some moral pathology. St. Ignatius knew his spiritual army needed men brave as their intentions and so in the Spiritual Exercises he wrote, “One must not swear, neither by Creator nor by creature, unless it be with truth, necessity, and reverence.”
As sincerity is not salvific in itself, neither is the keeping of a promise. John the Baptist lost his head because Herod kept his promise. Herod’s tragedy was the oppressive smallness of his moral universe. So too with the chief priests and the elders. Within the Temple precincts, their own voices sounded to them like the echo of God. Jesus broke the illusion and damned the acoustics: “The baptism of John: was it from heaven or from men?” The question set a trap for them, and rather than stumble into it by inadvertent honesty, they affected agnosticism: “We cannot tell.” In their case, this meant they could tell but would not, and the very utterance made each of them like the second son who promised so long as he could have his own way. Father Vincent McNabb said that agnosticism solves no mysteries but only shelves them: “When agnosticism has done its withering work in the mind of man, the mysteries remain as before; all that has been added to them is a settled despair.”
Perhaps the second son was not completely dishonest in making his promise. He may have thought the promise would be easy to keep. There was even a reverence about him lacking in his brother, for he called his father “sir” while his brother did not. He would have managed had the vineyard been a botanical garden with pleasant paths and subdued horticulturists nodding hello. That is the clericalist’s fantasy of the Church. It must be kept up even if it means pretending there are no weeds. Bromidic pieties about hushing up scandals and being lenient toward the reprobates “for the good of the Church” are designed for the good of those who have made promises with a conscience too delicate for reality. St. Gregory the Great upbraided those of nervous faith by saying that the truth must not be suppressed for fear of scandal.
The chief priests and elders wanted everyone to get along together, keeping their perks of office, of course. The Temple, whose smoke and sacrifices should have been dreadfully wonderful as Jacob’s dream, had instead become rather charming to them and that was their spiritual death. Christ broke that agnostic spell with His parable of the two sons. Promises are not enough, nor is an honest wallowing in disobedience. God in Christ will forgive any act for the asking, but there must be the act of asking, and the one asked must be Christ. Christ’s words to the chief priests and scribes about His cousin John were preparation for what they would have to decide about Peter when he preached on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”