A man had two sons. He came to first and said, ‘Son go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterward 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. (Mt 21:29-30)
For the folks at the Gesu Parish in Miami …
There’s an interesting lack of parallelism in the histories of the two sons. The first son responds to his father’s command in three stages. He 1) replies ‘I will not,’ 2) ‘changes his mind,’ and 3) goes to the vineyard. The second son is almost a mirror image of the first son: he 1) replies ‘Yes, sir’ but then 2) does not go to the vineyard. Intriguingly, even though the second also does the opposite of what he initially promised, Jesus does not say that he ‘changed his mind.’ He mentions no moment of decision, no conscious rebellion against his father. We only know that he didn’t end up going to the vineyard.
It’s the fact that the second son seems to drift away from his Father’s will so gently, so indecisively—maybe even unconsciously—that makes his story so effective as a cautionary tale. Jesus seems to be reminding us that we don’t have to be especially hard-hearted or anti-authoritarian to play the part of the second son. It’s enough just to get distracted, just to get into the habit of promising without doing.
One obvious way to be promising without doing, of course, is to ignore the great commands of the Church: i.e., attendance at Mass on Sundays and Days of Precept, annual confession and communion, tithing, etc. But for those of us who actually go to Mass on Sunday, perhaps the most common form of promising without doing is simply neglecting the Lord’s promptings and graces.
There are so man scenarios where this can happen. This happens, for instance, whenever in the sacrament of confession the Lord gives us fervor and resolve to overcome some sin by, let’s say, introducing some new discipline into our life. In the moment we easily say, ‘Yes, sir,’ but often, even after just a few days of faithful observance, we find that we have fallen back into our old routine. Or let’s say that after hearing the Gospel at Mass, we are moved to serve the poor; at that moment we say ‘I will’ in our hearts and begin to think about getting more involved. Months of thinking may pass, however, and we find that we still haven’t taken the first step toward the vineyard.
The final state of the second son suggests that entertaining lots of pious resolutions without acting on them may actually be more dangerous than not thinking about doing good things at all. St. Francis De Sales once suggested as much with regard to meditation. He counseled,
Most of all, after you rise from meditation you must remember the resolutions and decisions you have made and carefully put them into effect on that very day. This is the great fruit of meditation and without it meditation is often not only useless but harmful. Virtues meditated on but not practiced sometimes inflate our minds and courage and we think we that we are really such as we thought and resolved to be (Introduction to the Devout Life p. II, chap. 8 ).
Perhaps this is why Jesus saw so many “sinners and prostitutes” entering the Kingdom of Heaven first. Since the great public sinners were presumably not in the habit of making promises at all, years of intending with doing had not yet weakened their resolve. When Jesus called, they were still capable of decisive action.
St. Ignatius says quite simply, “Love is more in deeds than in words.” Perhaps this very day God is calling us to some deed. Perhaps he is favoring us with a desire to grow in holiness, with the strengthened resolve to conquer a bad habit, with an intention to put our faith into loving action. If so, we do better not to reply blithely, ‘Yes, sir.’ We do better to take stock. We do better first to size up the ‘I will not’ that runs so deep in our bones, lest it catch us unawares.
In the end, however, this awareness of our weakness need not crush us. It has the potential instead to sharpen our hunger for the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist we see the fruit of Christ promising and then doing. Indeed, Christ is a promise fulfilled; he is the Word made flesh. We do well, then, to draw the strength to fulfill our own promises from his altar.