Jesus never offered an invitation without an accompanying challenge. He spent his entire adult life teaching others about compassion, love and service to others and about commitment to God and to His kingdom. The parable of the two sons, seen in today's Gospel, is only five verses long and yet it has much more significance than just looking at the difference between "saying" and "doing."
To get the whole picture behind today's parable, we first need to look at it in the context of Matthew's Gospel. The twenty-first chapter of Matthew deals with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem a week before he would be crucified. We see him drive the money-changers from the Temple. He heals the blind and the lame. He speaks and acts with authority. Throughout this last week, he is continually confronted by the chief priests and elders and he is challenged by members of the Sanhedrin, who ultimately begin to conspire to have him arrested and disposed of.
In the middle of all this we find our little parable, and the significant fact about it is that it was specifically addressed to these very people, the angry Scribes and Pharisees, critical priests and theologians, and members of the highest religious authority. They are indignant that Jesus should assert that God cares about sinners, incensed that he would eat with people they despised and actually call them His friends.
And how does the Lord answer them? "These sinners, these people you despise, are nearer to God than you. They may have once disregarded God's call and they are indeed the outcasts of society, but they have shown sorrow and repentance." More than that, they are those who can appreciate God's goodness. They have what the enemies of Jesus lack - the deep courage to act on behalf of the Lord.
It's a strong lesson, with strong words. Those who should have been the leading candidates for entry into God's kingdom are precisely those who are in danger of not getting in at all. The Pharisees were models of observance. The scribes, lawyers and teachers of the law were devoted to its study. And the members of the Sanhedrin were the Supreme Council and Tribunal of the Jews.
The two sons represent, respectively, the religious outcasts who followed the call of the Gospel and the religious leaders of the day who didn't. Jesus asks: "Which of the two did his father's will?" By the answer they give, the leaders condemn themselves.
And here is the meaning of the parable for all of us. It is clear that words alone will not save us. Having all the power of knowledge is not enough. Having a vision but not acting upon it is having no vision at all. A choice is required.
This is a tough little parable. And Jesus was not afraid to confront his opposition.
Living the Christian life in today's world is no easy task. It is work and hard work at that. It takes courage of spirit to stand up for what's right when everyone else around you is promoting compromise. It takes courage of mind to say "no" when society says "yes." It takes courage of faith to act when it is safer to remain within the security-blanket of complacency. And it takes courage of heart to preach reconciliation and peace amid prejudice and the clamor for war.
Christianity begins within our hearts, but it cannot remain there. It is only by our deeds that we really prove who we are. It is only by our actions that we establish whether we are doers or just talkers.