26th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Gospel – Mt 21:28-32

" “Obedience” to God is to Love Genuinely "

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 25th September 2011

In today’s Gospel of the “Two Sons,” this allegory is essentially about whether we are obedient to God’s Will or not in our daily living. In many ways, this story describes the basic pattern of how we live our Christian faith.  The “two sons” response to their father’s request evoked two imperfect contrasting responses.  The first son’s immediate response was “No, I will not go, but then later repented and went to work in the vineyard.”  However, the second son immediately answered “yes, I will go, but eventually did not turn up.”  We all know that the first son eventually was a more obedient son, as what matters in life is not about what we say, but more importantly about whether our deeds and life do in fact show what we promise and profess. 

In the Gospel, Jesus explains further that the first son refers to the sinners, like tax-collector and prostitutes.  They initially reject the Good News of salvation, but later repent and live in accordance to God’s Will and Ways, and “make their way into God’s Kingdom.”  The second son refers to the leaders of the Jewish community; the Pharisees and the Scribes, who live hypocritical lives.  They profess their faith in beautiful words and show off how they are so religious and pious, but ultimately, they have no genuine obedience to how God wants them to live. 

While, we each understand how in different ways and at different times, we can behave like the first son and at other times we can behave like the second son, we have to note that there is the third invisible son.  This is the ideal son who responses that he will obey and actually obeys fully and genuinely, and in fact, even lays down his life in obedience to His Father’s Will.  This “invisible son” is Jesus, the Son of God whom we are each called to imitate at all times. 


Fr Bernard Haring,a foremost moral theologian says, “the most brilliant scientist, the most outstanding technician, the smoothest politician, can all be extremely underdeveloped as human beings, if they do not care above all and before all else for the true knowledge of salvation.”  He adds, “I can still vividly remember a long flight I once took, seated next to a Japanese politician.  We ended up talking about religion which he seemed interested.  But at a certain point in the conversation, he said, ‘I really cannot get involved with questions of religion until I have achieved my goals as a politician.’  In saying this, ‘Is he not voicing the attitude of countless people, and perhaps many of us here?  And this attitude is the attitude of putting salvation, second;earthly success, first?”

Fr Haring explains further.  He says, “If we are truthful in our thinking, we will not get lost in pettiness and finicky behaviour.  When we are truthful in our behaviour, we will see God in our neighbour.  And if we are truthful in our speech, we will also be truthful in our love.”  (cf. adapted from: “The Virtues of an Authentic Life – A Celebration of Spiritual Maturity, Bernard Haring, pp.158-164).


The vineyard that symbolises the “Kingdom of God” that we are each called to live in /is not some far away land that we hope to reach.  No, God’s kingdom is, first of all, the active presence of God’s spirit within us, offering us the freedom to truly desire to live our lives in obedience to how God want us to live our lives . . . a life that bears fruit in bringing God’s peace, unity and love to people with whom we live, work, pray and serve.

One spiritual writer tells us, “The good news is that you really don’t know how great you can be, how much you are capable of loving and what you can possibly accomplish . . . with God’s grace to help you.”  So, the greatest challenge in life is to stay close to God; not like the Japanese politician in our earlier example who put Salvation second, and earthly success first.  Instead, when we strive to stay close to God, we will experience His touch; we will become aware of His constant flow of grace filling our hearts.  And with such a close contact with God, we will become, more human and more fully alive as a person. 


But, how can we develop such a closeness with God, you may ask.  Henri Nouwen, a well-known spiritual writer shares with us how he goes about this.  He says, “We need to move from our minds to our hearts.  This radical change is needed.  One way of doing this is by saying a prayer with as much attentiveness as possible.  We can begin with using the prayers we already know by heart, like the Our Father, the Apostles’ Creed, the Glory Be to the Father or even Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” 

As we lie on our bed, drive our car, wait for the bus, or walk our dog, we can slowly let the words of one of these prayers go through our mind simply trying to listen with your whole being to what they are saying . . .

But, if you find yourself constantly distracted by your worries, this does not matter; just keep going back to the words of the prayer, and you will discover that your worries will become less obsessive and that you will really start to enjoy praying.  And as the prayer descends from your mind into the centre of your being, you will discover its healing power. 


These attentive repetitions of a well-known prayer are able to help us settle our hearts on the Kingdom of God, because the words of such a prayer have the power to transform our inner anxiety into inner peace.   

For a long time, I prayed the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.  Fresh and green are the pastures where He gives me repose.  Near restful waters He leads me to revive my drooping spirits.”  I prayed these words in the morning for half an hour sitting quietly on my chair trying only to keep my mind focused on what I was saying.  I prayed them during the many moments of the day when I was going here and there, and I even prayed them during my routine activities. 

These words stand in stark contrast to the reality of my life.  I want many things; I see mostly busy roads and ugly shopping malls; and if there are any waters to walk along they are mostly polluted.  But, as I keep saying, “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” and allow God’s shepherding love to enter more fully into my heart, I become more fully aware that the busy roads, the ugly malls, and the polluted rivers are not telling the true story of who I am.  I do not belong to the powers and principalities that rule the world, but to the Good Shepherd who knows His own and is known by His own.  In the presence of my Lord and Shepherd, there is truly nothing I shall want.   He will, indeed, give me the rest my heart desires and pull me out of the dark pits of my depression. 


The deeper these words of “The Good Shepherd” or the Our Father or Creed enter into the centre of my being, the more I become part of God’s people and the better I will understand what it means to be in the world without being part of it.”  (cf. “Jesus, a Gospel,” by Henri Nouwen,” pp.48-49).

And, once we are able to develop a personal relationship with the Lord, we will have the grace of the wisdom to go beyond the crude behaviour of the first son who bluntly responses to his father, and the hypocrisy of the second son, who does not honour and live out what he says. 

And, instead, become more like the third “invisible son” who obeys fully and totally, even if the obedience means giving up our pride and rigid and narrow ways of thinking, working and behaving, so that like Christ we will be able to say to God daily, “Father, not what I will, but what You Will be done.” (Mk 14:36).

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.


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