When You Sin, You Say to God, ‘I Will Not’ — But Will You Change Your Mind?
SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of German engraver Georg Pencz
Today’s Gospel features a parable about a father and his two boys. Dad owns a vineyard. Vineyards require work. He asks his boys to go into the vineyard and help out.
The obstinate one flat-out refuses: “I will not.” But then, he thinks about it, changes his mind, and goes.
The obsequious one feigns obedience: “Yes, sir.” But he never got there. Maybe he never intended to. Maybe he set out but got distracted along the way. Maybe he just plain out forgot. Whatever. He never showed.
Jesus is contrasting the Pharisees and the tax collectors. The former preened themselves on their righteousness: “We have Abraham for our father” (Matthew 3:9). The tax collectors and other “sinners,” those who did not make a show of moral superiority, did not pretend (especially to themselves) that they were what they weren’t.
And that gives God the crevice — the space — for his grace to work.
Last year, we read the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, two men who went to the Temple, ostensibly to pray. As I summarized that parable, the publican talked to God, and the Pharisee talked to himself. The publican recognized he was a sinner and asked God’s mercy. The Pharisee was too busy enumerating his virtues for God to get a word in edgewise.
The verse above — “we have Abraham for our Father” — comes from John the Baptist. As he begins his ministry of calling people to repentance and conversion, he sees all sorts of people streaming toward him: tax collectors, soldiers, people who are materially better off … and Pharisees. His “welcome” is to call the last group a “brood of vipers.” His advice for accompanying them is to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (3:8). That’s when he makes the Abrahamic allusion: don’t preen on your lineage, because “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones!”
Needless to say, John the Baptist was never on the Pharisees’ popularity charts. Neither, for that matter, was Jesus.
Jesus, after all, picks up John’s thread. Observing that some of the Pharisees were trying to kill him, he denies their Abrahamic lineage: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me. …. You are doing the works of your father! … You belong to your father, the devil, and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning …” (John 8: 39, 41, 44). So, “they picked up stones to throw at him …” (8:59). Q.E.D.
Obedient humility is the prerequisite to spiritual advance because it opens the door to “changing one’s mind.” The fundamental Christian message — the true Christian words of welcome — are not, “I’m okay, you’re okay” but, “Repent and believe the Good News.” They’re the first words John the Baptist speaks (Mark 1:4) and, in Mark, they are the first public commands Jesus makes (v. 15).
The Greek word for “repent” is μετανοεῖτε. “Metanoiete” literally means “to change one’s mind.” That’s what one of the sons did.
That’s what God invites each and every one of his sons and daughters to do. Our first reaction, like the boy’s, may have been “I will not!” We are sinners: absent God’s grace, our default position is self-centeredness. True charity requires that grace.
But, as Francis Thompson reminds us, “the Hound of Heaven” is in relentless pursuit of us, no matter how much we try to evade him. And the most basic thing God wants is for us to stop running. If we do, he’ll take it from there. All we have to do is stop fighting him.
That’s how the boy who “will not” go to the vineyard “changed his mind” and went.
Today’s Gospel is illustrated in a print dating from about 1534-1535 by Georg Pencz, traditionally regarded as a “German” engraver. We met him earlier this year: he illustrated the parable of the sower and the seed. He was considered one of the “Little Masters” of Bavaria because of his intricate prints. (The work measures about 19 x 25 inches and is held by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, though not on view.) Pencz’s artistic influence was first formed by the great German engraver Albrecht Dürer but, later, Pencz brought his own influences from sojourns in Italy to bear on his work.
The father is the central figure of the painting. As he speaks to his sons, the contrast between his age and their youth is obvious. He gestures with his right hand towards his vineyard. Two servants are there, already hard at work, their backs turned to the father as they labor in the field. The two lads hear their father’s call: Pencz captures the moment just before they respond. Neither yet looks ready to answer, either affirmatively or negatively. They have what appear to be threshing tools on their shoulders, which would be odd if this was their first invitation to farm labor and one was already inclined to decline. It’s a moment of decision for them, as is every invitation from the Father to go into his vineyard.
What will they do? What will you?