26th Sunday (A) 26th September 2020
There was once a story that involved two brothers and their father. In fact, there wasn’t once a story, but several different stories about two brothers and their father. There is Cain & Abel and their father Adam, there is Jacob & Esau and Isaac, there is the Prodigal Son & his unforgiving elder brother and their father Today we hear another story of two brothers and a father. One brother said he would do something, but didn’t, and the other said he would not do something, but then went and did it.
I have often been struck by this feature of stories from the bible, of father and two sons, stories in which we can probably identify with each of the characters. Yes, the father quite often is clearly God, but even in the story of the Prodigal Son the story tells us not only about God, but how we might relate in forgiveness to others. So too, in today’s Gospel story the father is God; the son who says, ‘yes’, but doesn’t do what he is asked, clearly represents the Scribes and the Pharisees who said ‘yes’ to God, but didn’t do what he actually asked. The son who said ‘no’ but did but then did what eh was asked, represents the tax collectors and prostitutes who say ‘no’ but nevertheless do recognise the power of God and his healing and forgiving touch when they actually see it in Jesus.
In our adversarial society two things usually find themselves in opposition to each other. In a court of law the two sides set out their arguments but only one side can win; they can’t both be right. So too in politics: in the House of Commons there are two sides that sit opposite each other and would rarely, if ever agree. With these stories of two sons we are therefore predisposed to consider that one of them must be right, and that the other is wrong. So, with the story of the Prodigal Son, we tend to think of the prodigal son as someone who has done bad but then turns good in repentance to receive the father’s forgiveness. But the story is as much about the other son, who has not done wrong, but then turns bad by not sharing the father’s forgiving love. So, in today’s story both sons have a message for us. Yes, the one who did the task, even if he said he wouldn’t, did the Father’s will, but neither son could be considered ideal role models. The ideal son is the one who says he will do it and does it.
Perhaps we are not given the picture of such an ideal son because he doesn’t exist. If he did exist we might flatter ourselves by identifying with him. The truth is that we are like both the sons in the story. At times we say we will do something but don’t – yes, I’ll say my prayers, yes, I’ll really try and do something about my inner life and my relationship with God, yes, I will love my neighbour and see in them the beauty of God himself, yes, I will, be good , patient kind etc. etc. We say all this, with the best of intentions but we know that we don’t – or at any rate feel that we don’t. We might in fact be praying – but don’t feel that we are, we might actually show great tolerance and understanding of someone else, but nonetheless feel inside a loathing, dislike or irritation about the other person.
On the other hand we may say, ‘no, I can’t be bothered with all that’, then drift off, do our own thing, get into scrapes of one kind or another, but do fulfil the command to love when we see someone hurt, someone in need, and we turn to God in inarticulate prayer when we need him most.
The son who says he won’t but does, comes out slightly better in the gospel story, as the one who does God’s will. Remember that the story is told directly as a criticism to the scribes and the Pharisees. The story for us, does not put one above the other, because we have something to learn from both sons: namely, that is not so much a matter of what you say or promise but what you actually do.