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."
Do you ever begin to read a piece of literature, and you just find yourself among the pages? I remember when I returned to Rome after my internship, everybody thought I had a doppelganger. I was surprised when some brothers came up to me speaking Portuguese. They were confusing me with another brother from Brazil. When I finally met him, I could see how people would be confused. We were definitely very similar.
With today’s Gospel, I feel very similar to the older son, and it is not really a source of pride. I try so hard to justify myself. All the time, I want to be right. I make jokes about it. “I am always right, and the sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be.” Isn’t that terrible? I share this with you, because I think we can all fall into this type of thinking. I catch myself doing it all the time.
So this parable strikes me to the very core. The older son, with whom I feel more closely associated, says no. He is self-righteous. He does not want the father to tell him what to do. He has measured out his own efforts and has fulfilled his duty. Nothing more should be asked of him. He decides how much he is supposed to give. I feel myself tempted to do the same almost every day. I want to decide how much work I do. I want to decide how much of the chores I take care of. I decide how much I am going to play with the dog. It is all about me.
Then, something happens. He recognizes that he has a bad attitude. And his sense of duty kicks in. He gets up, goes out, and does what the father has asked of him. Here too, I feel like my psychological process is being described step-by-step. It is so easy to get stuck on my own feelings. I do what I feel is not my duty and I end up feeling sorry for myself. Rather than meriting treasure in heaven, I prepare more Purgatory time for myself.
Now, this is not to say that I don’t have the defects of the younger son. He focuses on himself too. He says he is going to do something, but then gets lazy and stays inside. I find myself doing this as well, although I definitely identify more with the older son.
This past week, we had a good example of somebody who did not try to justify himself. The speaker of the house of Parliament in Canada made a big gaffe and stepped down from his role. There are some positions of public service where we could hope to expect this, but we are perhaps to jaded to do so. It is good for there to be some honor in the things we do.
Both the older and the younger son are too focused on themselves. They lose sight of the fact that it is the Father who is good and gives them everything they have. They should not feel “put upon” that the father asks them to do something. They should jump up and do it with a willing spirit. But, they have been sucked into the lie of their own self-importance and this makes it impossible for them to disregard themselves in order to obey the father.
How much does our own self-love hinder our surrender to God? Take some time this week to look at what God is asking of you and how you are responding. If you are slacking off, could the problem not be that you are too caught up in your own self-importance?