Statistically, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, words and expressions which emphasize obedience, the doing of God’s will, are among his favorite.1
Jesus was saying that the Jewish leaders were like the son who said «yes” and then did not do it while the tax collectors and prostitutes are like the second son who said «No,» but changed his mind.
It’s a contrast between saying and doing or when Yes means No and No means Yes.
This second son’s story is often our story. «No, I’m not going to work in the vineyard today. I am meeting my friends. Why are you always ruining a chance for me to have some fun?» But, he changed his mind which is metanoia or repentance: a deeper conversion. Sometimes by the prayers of others.
Passive virtues (meekness, humility, obedience, and patience) are just as important as active virtues like devotion to duty.
The regretful son may have realized that it is about choices made in the present. Failure to renounce one’s will and desires leads to corruption and even hell, as our First Reading teaches. As C.S. Lewis said, “To walk out of God’s will, is to walk into nowhere.” In every sin there is disobedience and some kind of pride: these are fitly compensated for by a humble confession.
In essence, obedience to God or a lawful superior, like a parent, teacher or boss, or to an equal, like your spouse, is fundamentally a spiritual tool for rooting out self-will; self-will which, as St. Bernard tells us, fuels the fires of hell.
Or stated more positively; obedience is about a listening and docile spirit to the will of God made manifest in the request.
Obedience is a struggle because we have a tendency to be attached to our own opinions or ways of doing things. However, Obedience offers us perfect safety because it points us to the surest way of working out our sanctification. Obedience is better than sacrifice as 1 Sam. 15:22 says, and implies freedom, and a reward in heaven.
There is an identifiable structure in obedience.
The will submits to God, and our inferior faculties yield their obedience to the will. This submission or docility or teachability is, in essence, a process, not a result.
So, be careful with an illustration like this: A woman asked her pastor. «Will you please tell me what your idea of obedience is?» Holding out a blank sheet of paper, the pastor replied, «It is to sign your name at the bottom of the blank sheet, and let God fill it in as God wills.»2
I say “be careful” because obedience is not blind, per se. Jesus was obedient onto death which fulfilled the prophecies. Obedience has to be rooted in the intellect, not the will. And obedience is never obeying an unlawful demand, like the Nazi’s did, although perfect obedience obeys in all things lawful” (Summa Theologiae II-II.104.5.3).
Obedience is faith as Romans 1:5, calls it.
Maybe the second son realized that his Father calls him son. God calls us sons and daughters, by the Spirit of Adoption in the Holy Spirit, to a life of service.
If you have turned down the prompting from God to sing in the choir, make a donation to the Church; to serve in our new middle school and high school ministries, or on the liturgy committee, think of it now.
1. WL Richards, Another look at the parable of the two sons, Biblical Research, 23 1978, p 11-12.
2. Barbara Brokhoff, Obedience Is An Ugly Word!, Sermons.com