Let me tell you a story, if I may, and if you’d like you can try to figure out where I got it.
It was a city under siege. They had fought long and hard against the forces of evil, had lost many good people, and it was not enough. It was night, and their enemies filled the field outside the walls, chanting for their blood. The defenders had a small hope: that their old friends from the North would come their aid as they had so many times before. But there had been no answer to the summons, not one word that help was on the way. “They will not come,” was the word that came from the ruler of the city and passed down from mouth to mouth. The struggle went on and the gates were broken; it seemed that all was lost. Then at daybreak there were horns in the distance, and their friends from the North came riding down to help them, saving the day. It was one of the greatest battle sequences I’ve ever seen on film: it was during the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Yes, there’s a lot more to this story, but the ride of the Rohirrim was a stirring part of the story speaking about fulfillment of a promise.
For J.R.R. Tolkein, keeping one’s promises was a vitally important thing. The ghost army that intervenes at the end of the Battle of Pennelor Field was condemned to an afterlife limbo because they’d sworn an oath and broken their word. They could only be released by fulfilling their promise.
The times Jesus lived in were about living up to promises, especially obligations to one’s family. The situation Jesus describes is a typical contrast story between two brothers. In that day and age, the father had life or death power over his children and maintaining family honor was more important than anything. For a child to refuse to do a father’s bidding could mean death: Jesus’ audience would have known that and probably gasped when he said that a son had refused his father. The brother who said yes, they could understand: sure, he’s not following through but at least he’s not giving us public shame. The story provides a lot of contrast that we can’t see on the surface, which makes the conclusion more dramatic: of course, the son who went to the fields did the father’s will.
Jesus turns this against his audience well: for they called themselves faithful Jews, adhering to the letter of the Law and doing nothing publicly to tarnish their image as observant Jews. These people looked down on tax collectors and prostitutes and a list of people who had jobs that excluded them from practicing their religion, most of those involved contact with Gentiles. Yet these people were walking the walk, they were living according to the spirit of the Law while some observant Jews of Jesus’ day were using the letter of the Law to frustrate the purpose. An example: there was a limit to how far one could go away from home on the Sabbath. These folks would pick up a bunch of stones from their front door, walk that allowed distance, drop a stone, which was part of their home, go another regulation distance, drop another stone, etc. This was just a small example of how some folks in Christ’s day would work the Law against itself.
This parable would have irritated Jesus’ audience, just like the Parable of the Laborers we encountered last week. The question: “Which of the two did his father’s will?” isn’t the one they would be comfortable with. If Jesus asked: “Which one did the right thing?” the answer would have been the opposite, even though the story still would have rankled.
As a people committed to Christ, our challenge isn’t saying “yes” to Christ. We’ve already done that through Baptism and Confirmation; we do that every week as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Our challenge is to live out the commitment we’ve made. Like the Rohirrim, our challenge is to keep a promise that was made long ago and to put everything aside in order to keep that promise. We don’t have to ride for days in order to fight the hosts of Mordor at the other end, or at least I hope that we don’t have to do that. But the most compelling argument against Christianity through history has been that we don’t live by what Christ teaches;
we undermine the Gospel when we to fall to the temptation to do what we want even when it isn’t what Jesus would do.
Like the chief priests and pharisees, we’re called to see God’s work among us, even in unexpected places. Acknowledging God acting in strange places isn’t enough, we’re called to respond. Even if God is acting through people we disapprove of in places we don’t want to go, we’re called to respond to the presence of God, no matter how far it takes us out of our comfort zones.
The Father calls us to go into the vineyard. We have already said, “Yes sir, I go” and we’re going to say it again when we come forward to share the Body and Blood of Christ. Will we be the son who said yes with his lips and didn’t follow through with the work? Or will we be the character who doesn’t appear in this story, will we be the riders of the North, who live up to who we say we are?