Matthew 21:28-32
End State
 by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

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 he 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.

It is one of the more unfortunate parts of growing up in a modern American context that the years of our childhoods are punctuated and outlined by report cards.  We learn, even from the earliest days, to judge our success or failure based on our cumulative performance.  Though we might reset at important moments, passing into high school or into university, we still internalize the lesson that poor performance early on still has an effect on our total GPA at graduation, or that excellent performance at the start can give us breathing room if we run into difficulty later, or simply wish to relax toward the end.

Priests often hear this same sort of reflexive logic when people come to us reflecting on their spiritual lives.  Some will wonder if God really can forgive them for particularly bad past sins, or if after spending so much time stuck in a particular habit of sin or in spiritual apathy, holiness is still a possibility.  Conversely, some will remind us that they spent their youth practicing the faith, perhaps attending Catholic parish schools or colleges, or serving their parish in some way, so now God surely won't mind if they take some distance from him or from his church, or even just relax their spiritual lives.  It also happens that we judge the lives and legacies of others in the same way, simply considering the balance of their works, for good or ill, and imagining that God does the same.

Christ our God reminds us in this week's Gospel that this perspective is at odds with his own and does not represent a truly Christian worldview.  God does not grade us in a merely cumulative fashion.  As Jesus says, "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before . . . the chief priests and elders of the people."  Why?  Is it because God doesn't really mind the sins of supposedly humble tax collectors and prostitutes but saves his wrath for presumably harsh religious authorities?  Surely not.  Is it because the because the sinners actually had accomplished more cumulative good than the supposedly righteous people?  No.  These interpretations would be based solely on modern biases.

Instead, Christ himself explains that when John the Baptist came to the chief priests, they "did not believe him, but tax collectors and prostitutes did."  The key is whether or not these people arrived at repentance in the end.

This, then, is the meaning of the parable of the two sons.  The Scriptures provide us countless examples of both characters; those who begin well but end badly, and those who begin badly but end well.  Among the former, we might not King Saul, King Solomon and Judas, all of whom started in deep friendship with God, even accomplishing wondrous things in his name, but who for different reasons, all let that friendship go.  On the other hand, we have those who wandered but returned in the end, like Samson, King David, Jonah, Peter, Mary Magdalene, the good thief, and Paul.  These resisted the Lord at first, held his gifts cheap, or even grossly misused them, before finally repenting, and receiving healing.  In neither case does God, through the Scriptures, call us to judge their legacy on the cumulative value of their deeds, as though keeping a cosmic GPS for each.  Rather, he rewards each according to their final state, whether at the end of the day they finally agreed to work his vineyard in friendship.  Surely our own progress as Christians will have much to do with whether we too evaluate the world in this divine fashion.