Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13
The story of the two brothers is deceptively simple and utterly true. It is a favorite casting in the Scriptures. We have the brother stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and Brothers. We have the story of the two brothers in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and more recently on Broadway in the play True Exit with rival brothers Austin and Lee. The first son represents the religious leaders of Israel. The second son represents the religious outcasts of Israel.
The scribes and Pharisees have managed to find fault with the teachings of the prophets, more recently with John the Baptist’s gospel of repentance. Even now they fault Jesus because of his association with questionable persons, i.e. tax-collectors and prostitutes.
There is a debate in the Matthew community about who should be invited into the community of disciples? Should the brotherhood adhere to the strict laws of fasting and abstinence of Judaism, or should it be more tolerant?
Jesus is aware of the unsavory reputation of some of the guests. He says that grace of God works with the humble of heart and not the self righteous. Obedient faith is always the final test for Jesus in Mathew’s gospel. Neither son in the story was the kind of son to bring joy to the heart of any father. Yet in the end one was better than the other. The first son realizes he needed to repent. He faced his conscience, laid down his pride admitted his wrong without any excuse. He fulfilled his work realizing his insolence may have marred his work, but he did his best and God recognized his good deed.
The first son is an example of how we need not be slaves to our insolent self. We realize that promises never take the place of performance. Fine words are never a substitute for fine actions. Jesus says the one who is open to Jesus’ message of mercy enters the Reign of God. God is faithful. Those faithful to God’s message will be blessed. You can recognize them because they respect everyone’s freedom. God holds himself against good people (Pharisees and Scribes) who complain God is too merciful. God forgives sinful people. This is the big tent that Pope Francis is speaking about so eloquently.
Fr. Ken O’Malley, C.P., is the local superior at Holy Name Passionist Community in Houston, Texas.