Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

1st Sunday after the Festival of Transfiguration

True Change: How Difficult is True Moral Change?

by Larry Broding

Gospel: St. Matthew 21: 28-32

The cynical believe lasting change is impossible. If a celebrity professes repentance, the disbelieving whisper, "It's only for the publicity." If a politician works for the good of his or her district, the talking heads declare, "It's pork-barrel politics." The human condition limits real change. Human nature favors the dark side. The sinner will always sin.

But are the cynical realistic, or merely self-righteous? Are they so absorbed dissecting the morass of humanity they fail to see the power of divinity? Does the pride of their judgement cloud their faith?

Jesus challenged the Jewish leaders with these issues in one simple phrase. Who did the will of the Father?

Popular Translation

Jesus said to the Jewish leaders:

28 "Tell me what you think about this story. There was a man who had two sons. Approaching the oldest son, the man told him, "Go work in my vineyard today."

29 "I don't want to," the oldest son answered. But he changed his mind and went to work.

30 Then, approaching the younger son, the man told him the same thing. "Yes, sir, I will," the younger son answered. But he didn't go to work

31 So," Jesus concluded, "which son did what his father wanted?"

"The older one," the leaders answered.

"Then, listen!" Jesus said. "Sinners will go into God's Kingdom ahead of you. 32 For John the Baptist came to all the people and showed everyone the right way to live. You didn't believe what he taught, but the sinners did. When you saw (what happened), you did not later change your minds and believe what John said."

Literal Translation

Jesus said to the Jewish leaders:

28 So, what do you think? A man has two sons. Approaching the first (one), he said, 'Son, go today (and) work in the vineyard.' 29 Having answered, he said, 'No, I do not want to,' but, later, having felt regret, he went (into the vineyard to work). 30 Having approached the other (son), he said the same. Having answered, he said 'I (will), Sir,' (but) he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the father's request?" They said "The first (son)." JESUS said to them, "Amen I say to you. Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you. 32 For John went to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him. But you, having seen (him and his activity) did not feel regret, (so) to later believe him."

21:28-32 These passages have seen textual corruption, for there are three different forms of the parable. A) In some ancient manuscripts, the answer to the question (Which of the two did the father's request?"), the answer is "the second," the agreeable, yet lazy son. B) In other manuscripts, the position of the two sons change, where the first says "yes" and does nothing, while the second is the rebellious, but regretful son. C) The third set of manuscripts is reflected in the story. The logic of B) or C) seems apparent to the modern people. To understand the logic of A), see the commentary.

21:30 ""I (will), Sir,"" is literally "I, Sir!" This is polite address in ancient Greek.

21:32 "the way of righteousness" is the equivalent of "God's will."


To us, the story of the two sons presents a simple choice. Results are more important than appearances. The older son was the better son because he was honest with his answer. Yet, he relented and obeyed his father. The younger son lied to save face. His motives were dubious. The older son was moral. The younger was not.

But, to the audience of Jesus the choice was not that easy. For the culture in the time of Jesus placed far more emphasis on reputation than we do. Their focus was not on the moral character of the sons but the honor of the father. In the small community atmosphere in Palestine, everyone knew everyone else's business. The choices of the sons would soon become public knowledge through the gossip grapevine. The denial of the older son embarrassed the father while the lie of the younger son at least showed deference to father's position. The older son dishonored his father's reputation. The younger son honored his father's standing in the community. In the mind of Jesus' contemporaries, the younger son was the better son. [21:28-30]

Jesus did not ask the question of character to his audience. He asked the faith question. Who did the will of the Father? In a simple phrase, Jesus changed the focus of the debate. The social standing of the sons or the reputation of the father did not matter. The openness of the heart did matter. [21:31a]

To understand the full impact of Jesus' question, let us review the imagery found within the parable. Jesus presented a father and two sons. The father obviously represented God. But, the term translated "son" was actually "teknos," Greek for a male child (not "uios," the usual Greek word for "son"). [21:28] While the translation is technically correct, the emphasis should be placed upon "child." Everyone in Jesus' audience recognized that all were God's children. Some of God's children remained faithful, while others fell away in sin.

As Jesus unfolded the story, the father's question did not emphasize the moral character of the child, but his work in the vineyard. As we discussed last week, the vineyard represented Israel. Work in the vineyard meant harvest, preparing Israel for God's Kingdom. Repentance was key to such preparation. The older child embarrassed his father, but he did repent. He worked in the vineyard and prepared for the coming of the Kingdom.

Only change of mind and heart toward God mattered, not social standing or moral background. That is why Jesus could say that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom with greater honor than Jewish leaders. (The term "before" in 21:31b meant position, not temporal sequence.) [21:31b] This statement shocked Jesus' audience, for many Jewish rabbis held that these two groups were so morally corrupt they could never enter the Kingdom. The self-righteous leaders would be totally humiliated to stand below such rift-raft in God's presence. (The Greek word "before" in 21:31b can even be translated "instead of." The tax collectors and the prostitutes would replace the Jewish leaders in the Kingdom!) Sinners who did the will of the Father would stand over those who paid lip-service to the Kingdom and put on a good religious appearance.

To make his point, Jesus reminded the leaders of John the Baptist. John's ministry evoked the spirit of the prophets who challenged the people to repent. Unlike the prophets, however, John focused upon the coming Kingdom. His call produced change in the lives of people. Yet, neither the prophetic tradition in which John stood, nor the power of his words, nor the results his ministry produced could change the minds of the religious elite. Immersed in their own importance, they could not or would not entertain the possibility of true moral change or God's delight in such change. As others could not change, neither could they. [21:32]

What stops us from moral change? Why?

Catechism Theme: Interior Penance (Catechism of Catholic Church 1430-1433)

Conversion begins with the heart, for only in the heart can one truly change. And, only from the heart can a change in life be truly sincere. When Jesus first preached repentance, he began with change in the heart.

Conversion means rejection of the old life and living in hope for a new life. Burdened by regret and repugnance for past actions, the heart of the sinner turns toward the freedom and peace of God's mercy. Yet such a turn cannot happen without the initiative of God. For, God calls the sinner to change and empowers the sinner to affect change in his or her life. Change only occurs when the sinner allows God to take charge. Hence, the key to change is interior penance, an openness to God and his will.

How has God called you to change? What changes can you see in your life from God's call? What changes can you see in others' lives from the call of the Lord?

Yes, the cynic in us all proclaims the immoveable moral law. Change is barely possible, only open to the strong or the lucky. Sinners will always be sinners. Saints are merely sinners who put up a good front. (Of course, we who judge stand above all that!)

But, the call of the Lord declares everyone a sinner in the need of change. All of us, saint or sinner, are asked one question. Are we doing the will of the Father? This question even silences the cynic. For the cynic knows in his heart he does not, and hides his head in shame.

Where you think you hear the call of the Lord in your life? How is God leading you to change? Pray for the wisdom to clearly discern the Lord's voice and the power to change.

Copyright 1999 -2007, Larry Broding, Used with Permission

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 1st Sunday after the Feast of Transfiguration

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