For this reason, when he came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in. Then I said, “As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’ ” [Heb 10:5]
The words from this critical passage from the Letter to the Hebrews defines for us the essence of Christ’s sacrifice, the act of self-oblation by which he gave an infinite satisfaction to God for man’s sins and by which he simultaneously manifested to us the fact that he was truly God’s Eternal Son. The heart of Jesus’ sacrifice was His perfect obedience to the will of the Father, an obedience that begins when he lowers himself and comes into the world, and that reaches it’s ultimate perfection when He surrenders Himself to death on a cross. Everything Jesus did was a perfect response of human obedience to His Father’s will, and it was this interior oblation of his heart and will that constituted the essence of the sacrifice on Calvary by which the world is redeemed. His perfect obedience and humility was the remedy for our disobedience and pride.
Man cannot attain Eternal Life except through obedience to the will of God. Neither could Jesus redeem us without such obedience, and we cannot be saved by Him without such obedience. It is man’s pride that stands between himself and God, the pride encouraged by the Serpent when man first said I will not obey, and it is the same situation today when man says I will not obey. Unless man is cured of his pride and disobedience, he cannot be saved, cannot gain Eternal Life. In today’s second reading, Paul tells us to have the attitude of Jesus, the attitude whereby “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Indeed, this is what Jesus himself teaches us at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, when he says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” [Matthew 7:21] We need to pay attention to that important line in Scripture today.
One cannot simply talk one’s way into heaven. Salvation cannot be attained by simply talking about God. Salvation is ultimately a matter of love, which moves us to action, and man does not truly love God unless his life becomes a true reflection of God’s will, that is, unless man actually does God’s will, put’s God’s will into action, and not just in words.
The parable in today’s Gospel is another way in which Jesus teaches this same truth. It is not enough for us to say we will obey, but we must by our actions obey the Father, as did Jesus, “unto death.” The first son is like the man in Matthew 7 who says “Lord, Lord,” that is, who talks devoutly but in fact is unwilling to obey. The second son, although he at first refuses to obey, later repents and goes out to do his father’s will. The second son represents the repentant sinner, and the first the unrepentant sinner. Both are sinners, as Paul says in His Letter to the Romans: For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. [Rom 3:23]
So both sons in the parable disobey; both are sinners; but the difference is that the second son finally repents and goes into the vineyard [which is the Kingdom of Matthew 7] and thus obeys the Father’s will, and is thus reunited to the Father. While the first Son simply puts His Father off by his words but does not repent and do his father’s will. And thus he does not “enter the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 7:21).
The Gospel truth is that all mankind is caught up in sin and disobedience and that the only way back to the Father is by humble repentance and obedience. Jesus has made possible this turning away from sin and returning to the Father by His own perfect obedience on earth. If we are united to Jesus, and if we are willing to humble ourselves and willing to go to work in the Vineyard, and thus fulfill His Father’s will, then we too can confidently turn to the Father and receive His mercy and forgiveness.
That is why St. Paul in that second reading tells us we must constantly keep the example of Jesus’ own humility and obedience before our eyes. If Jesus, who by His divine nature is equal to the Father, freely lowered Himself to became man, as Paul says, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, …” and further humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, then that must be the model for all who would be true sons of God in the Son. Jesus taught us precisely what it means to be a human being standing before God. What it means is that we cannot go before God with heads unbowed, unrepentant, refusing to do His will, as if we consider ourselves His equal. Even the Son, once he became man, insofar as he was a true man, was not equal to His Father. Thus he too had to follow the path of obedience in order to maintain his intimate communion with the Father and His proper status as the Son.
Too often today, as in the time of Jesus and right back to the Garden of Eden, men act as if they were equal to God. They find obedience to God oppressive and demeaning, and by their twisted words and reasoning they try to avoid obedience to those commandments that they judge unreasonable, or too difficult.
The Pharisees and scribes were the ones Jesus was addressing in His own day, because, while they talked about religion endlessly, they themselves avoided fulfilling the law and refused the call to repentance by John the Baptist and by Jesus Himself. Instead of fulfilling the law themselves, they became the judges of the law, choosing what parts they would obey and what parts they would render meaningless by their own vain reasoning. Thus they saw no reason to repent and ended up cutting themselves off from the Kingdom, and did not repent even when they saw that prostitutes, thieves and others they despised were repenting and, unlike them, were thereby entering God’s Kingdom.
Since man, even redeemed man, continually fails in obedience, repentance remains his only path to salvation. Surely that is the meaning of this parable of the two sons, of the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, and of the saying so often repeated by Jesus in the Gospels that He who humbles himself will be exalted by God, and that he who exalts himself will be humbled. May we all be among those who humble ourselves so that, like Jesus, we may be exalted by God through our embracing of the way of repentance and the way of the Cross. And may we not end up among those who because they exalt themselves, who would be equal to God, are finally humbled by God like the serpent who was the first to say, I will not serve.