Parable of the Two Sons

September 27, 2020


Ez 18:25-28

Clarifying areas of responsibility

Ps 25:4-5, 8-10, 14

Teach me your paths

Phil 2:1-11

The “Kenosis” hymn of Christ’s self-emptying

Mt 21:28-32

Parable of the Two Sons

Matthew’s Gospel is especially concerned about the intersection of mercy and justice. He was a Jewish-Christian who lived in the post-Jerusalem world, after the Romans had destroyed the city and the second temple, in 70 A.D. He vigorously taught the nonviolence of Jesus in a world that wanted vengeance. But that raised all the more intensely the question of God’s justice. How is God to be understood as concerned about justice in the world, if there is no pay-back?

In today’s first reading, from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet is writing in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the first temple, in 587 B.C. So he is in a comparable position. Part of his job as prophet, he felt, was to assign areas of responsibility, since any responsibility for the disaster was being denied. In today’s passage he shows how conversion can change things — from good to bad, as well as from bad to good.

And he situates his discernment within a general feeling common in the aftermath of the disaster: “The Lord’s ways are not fair!” There is a paradox underlying Ezekiel’s teaching, namely, in what court can God be tried? Ezekiel is shifting the conversation to more manageable territory — awareness of one’s own guilt. There is a way in which the sinner who claims his or her own sin recognizes that God is just.

Matthew is working the same territory. The two sons called into the field both are on opposite sides of the question. But they have something in common. Both did the opposite of what they said they would do. That is, they both converted, in a sense, from their earlier position, from no to yes and from yes to no. But the parable suggests that what counted is what they did in the end.

Notice further that the passage gives as much space to the response to the parable as to the parable itself. Jesus has his listeners speak out what they know, like the second son in the parable, who says yes but doesn’t go to the field. They indict themselves. And we might note, it has the same force for readers and listeners to the Gospel parable.

The second reading from Philippians is one of the more famous passages in the New Testament. Paul is quoting an early hymn about the “emptying” of Christ, in the incarnation, followed by the exaltation and triumph of his return to the Father. The passage is often seen as consisting of six stanzas, three about the diminishment, three about the exaltation.

This emptying, or “kenosis,” to use the Greek term by which it is known, presents the incarnation as having its power in the putting aside of power. In adopting the human condition, even unto death, and that the violent death of the cross, Jesus shows God participating in the predicament of the human questioners. The answer is to share the suffering, rather than provide a satisfying answer about it. And Paul is telling the Philippians that they should exhibit the same humility. The power of the Gospel message is not in crushing the diminishment that threatens us, but rather in enduring it, to live again. The way to the other side is through the hardship, not around it.

The Philippians hymn saw in Jesus’ life the participation of God himself in our lives full of difficulty and defeat. It is as if God knows firsthand how we feel. We are not left alone in our suffering. But the way to resurrection is through the cross.

For reflection: Our actions are often the opposite of our talk. Why is this?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.

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