Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What is your opinion? That can be a dangerous question. You are being drawn out of yourself and into new territory. Your opinion, how you view this question, is more than just calculated thinking. It is the result of a life-time of experience and reflection. It reveals your attitudes and positions that may be more unconscious than explicit. When a wife asks, Does this dress make me look fat?, most husbands know how to express their opinions diplomatically.
But sometimes we are surprised by our own answers. We really hadn’t thought about that before. There is no predicting what we will say, but it could come from the fullness of our heart. The more free our opinion, the more authentic it is likely to be. But it is significant that we have an opinion. The question indicts us as a participant in the exchange. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has said that truth has to be interesting if it is to be truth. In university classes, it was never enough to write an essay describing positions an author might have. The next step was always: And what you think about it?
This question is always a moment of truth. Today’s Gospel has several moments of truth: Jesus’ question to the chief priest and elders, the father’s request to his sons, John the Baptist’s preaching of righteousness, the repentance of prostitutes and tax collectors. They are all events which call for a response. A free response. What is your opinion? You are free in how you respond. You are free in turning from iniquity or in turning towards it. You are not free from the consequences.
Your opinion is how you see and how you act. You may dissociate them as did the second son. Nothing is at stake in this moment. Yes, sir, but do nothing. I pray thee, hold me excused. I withdraw. This is the indifference of conformism and formalism which seeks to evade having an opinion. The refusal of the first son appears at least more honest, even though it too is an unthinkable violation of the respect and obedience owed to his father.
The story told by Jesus is bereft of explanatory why’s. Why did the father ask his sons to go to work in the vineyard? Why did he not come down like a ton of bricks at their refusals? Why did the sons refuse? Why did the first son repent? Why did the prostitutes and tax collectors repent? Why weren’t the chief priests and elders converted by either John or the example of the sinners?
What is your opinion? What experience is awakened when reflected in the actions described in this story? The unreasonable freedom of participation in the Kingdom is like the elephant in the room. It is the unspoken reality which keeps all the parts in living tension. Benedict reminds us that our life in this world is given us as a truce, in which the patience and silence and freedom of God are leading us to repentance (Prologue to the Rule). Those who are touched by grace experience how freely it is given. And the response must manifest the freedom of being forgiven solely because we could accept it. It is an event. Go out and work in the vineyard today.
Repentance is not a self-help effort to get into God’s good graces. It is a conversion from the ground up, and the first step is knowing it is a gift. Have in you the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus. Here is the son sent out to work in the vineyard who was obedient to the will of His Father, even to death on a cross. Have the same attitude, the same mind, the same opinion. Maybe we need to allow ourselves to be struck by grace of the one who humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. Can we dare to see ourselves reflected in his face and life? In a sermon, Paul Tillich reminds us that: Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness, when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life, when our separation is deeper than usual because we have violated another life, a life which we loved. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility have become intolerable to us. Maybe then we are free enough and ready for grace.