Two brothers, two verbal responses, two courses of action. In this parable, the desired outcome is clear, but it might help to make it explicit. Our Lord wants our “yes” to God to be reflected in our actions. One brother gives a “yes” to his father, but fails to act on it, while the other refuses his father’s request but later chooses to do what was asked. In the end, our actions matter most. We can rattle off every catechetical factoid in the book, list every saint from A to Z, and quote the Bible chapter and verse, but if our actions do not conform to the Gospel, to the commandments, to the revealed will of God, then our verbal “yes” is hollow. That said, we should also make note that the verbal matters. We all know the importance of a kind word, an affirmation, and how such speech makes a difference in our relationships. Likewise, the words we use to express our faith matter because the language we use either articulates the truth of God’s revelation in an accurate or inaccurate way. Our thoughts, words, and deeds reflect something of the totality of our being. Jesus wants to encounter us totally, and so our response to Him ought to be a response of integrity, where our “yes” to Him is manifested by our obedient and good actions.
This lesson ends with Jesus telling the chief priests and elders that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of them, for when they were confronted with John the Baptist’s message of repentance, they changed their ways. It is reasonable for us to think that such a transformation was not easy. It is hard to turn away from sin and change our behavior. Sin becomes a habit, and bad habits are hard to break. Good habits take time to form. What is required for a good habit (we might even call them “virtues”) is both the intellectual awareness of what ought to be done and the right course of action being chosen. Thought and deed come together to help us form good habits, virtues that make it possible for us to think, act, and love in union with the heart of God. The pattern of virtue and good habits takes time to grow.
If today were not a Sunday, we would celebrate the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. This great mystic and doctor of the Church helps us to find this path of virtue, this concord between word and action. The Little Flower wrote that “holiness consists simply in doing God’s will and being just want God wants us to be.” The brother who went and worked as his father asked chose, in the end, to be just what his father wanted him to be. In her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse calls this striving to be just what God wants us to be the “little way,” and describes a beautifully simple path toward holiness. She writes: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” Small things done with great love build up the virtuous habits that are necessary if we are to bring our whole self to a truly integrated relationship with Jesus. Since the challenge of making our words and actions agree can seem daunting, Thérèse reminds us: “You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.” One son said yes but failed to act. The other said no but had a change of heart and acted appropriately. True holiness consists in conforming our will, our mind, our heart, our speech, and our actions to the will of God. If tax collectors and prostitutes are able to change their ways, to hear the voice of God and turn away from sin, then so too can the chief priests and the elders. If we have been far from God in action, or if only our words indicate what we believe, there is still hope. The little way of St. Thérèse gives us a path toward holiness and to the habit of virtue that is necessary for every disciple. Through her intercession, may we learn to let our yes be yes, and so receive the consolation of a life in union with our heavenly Father.