The last shall be first, and their eyes are opened: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:28–32:

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

For the second week in a row, the Gospel and the readings invite us to explore the issue of fairness. What do we mean by fairness? To the human mind — in principle, anyway — it usually refers to a balance between justice and mercy. And we understand fairness  almost from the moment of consciousness, because it enters into virtually every communal exchange in human experience, in one way or another.

Unfortunately, we understand it from a human, self-centered point of view. Fairness usually means fair to me more than fair overall; perhaps more generously, we can’t see past our own needs and desires well enough to grasp fairness more broadly. Or it might be that we see fairness as a balance between justice and mercy, when from the divine perspective there is no need to balance the two at all.

In today’s Gospel, much like last week’s, we see the conflict between the human point of view of fairness and the divine. In both parables, Jesus uses work to make a point about salvation, the need for perseverance, and the mercy of the Lord’s forgiveness. Last week, Jesus painted the scene of workers in the field, all of whom received the same reward even though they began their work at different times. The workers who started earlier objected to this treatment, feeling that they should have been given a greater reward — but the master reminds them that they agreed to those wages when they began, and what the others received shouldn’t be their concern. The point in that parable was that the reward of salvation is the same for all of us, no matter when we commit ourselves to the kingdom of God.

Today’s parable takes the issue from another angle, that of rebellion and commitment. The one son openly rebels but repents and follows his father’s order. The other son agrees to do his father’s will but then rejects the father. Jesus challenges the priests and elders to say which son did the father’s will, and they correctly choose the first one – even though he came to that obedience late.

One can look at this parable from a couple of angles. Jesus uses it to make the point that sinners are grasping salvation better than the priests and temple authorities by repenting, a warning that they were missing the Messiah and His true nature and mission. One can also look at the two sons as the new church of sinners and Gentiles and the old “church” of Israelites, too.

However, all of these interpretations also reflect on the idea of fairness. The priests and elders enforced the Law; how was it fair that they were left behind? The Israelites had endured for millennia in worship of the Lord, albeit imperfectly; was it fair that they were about to be supplanted in salvation by sinners among them, but also by Gentiles?

The problem with this view of fairness is that it misses the whole context of salvation, and our role within it. The Lord chose the Israelites to bring the Law to the whole world by becoming a nation of priests, but the Israelites chose worldly authority instead due to their own self-interest. The chief priests and elders saw the promise of the Messiah as their return to worldly authority rather than an extension of the Lord’s mission of salvation, again due to a blindness over their self-interest.

Ezekiel had warned about the false perception of fairness, in the same exact context in which Jesus taught in today’s Gospel:

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

The Lord’s teaching through Ezekiel warns about the difference between the human perception of fairness and its divine application. We are too tainted by self-love to properly perceive true fairness, which is the hope that all of our brothers and sisters find salvation in Him. That is not a reward or a wage we are owed on the basis of a length of service, but a gift from God on the basis of true repentance and aligning our will to His. That is what the first son does in today’s parable, and what the late-joining workers do in last week’s parable as well. If we truly grasped salvation in the Gospel, we wouldn’t feel cheated by this extension of mercy as a form of injustice — we would be rejoicing at the salvation of more of His children.

As Paul writes to the Philippians, the key to unlocking salvation is adopting that same caritas and emptying one’s self of self-love, in imitation of Christ. “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,” Paul teaches, “each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” for our sakes, Paul continues, showing us the way to salvation.

We are all called not just to our own salvation, but also to work for the salvation of others. We should understand each true conversion as a victory for the Lord and for all of us as well, no matter when it comes … and no matter how much we in our limited vision perceive injustice in that reward. And it is those who truly understand how much they do not deserve salvation but realize the value of this gift of grace who will go first — a point Jesus makes plain in today’s Gospel as a warning to the self-righteous of that time. Let that warning open our eyes in our own time as well.

The front page image is a detail from “Jesús en Casa de Anás” by José de Madrazo y Agudo, 1803. Currently on display at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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