"What is your opinion? A man had two sons ..." (Matt 21:28).
The spiritual journey of St. Augustine to God is beautifully captured in two quotes from his writings that bracket his response. As a young man engaged in life's pleasures, he said to God, "Make me good, but not yet." Toward the end of his life and after his conversion, he lamented the years lost to sinful postponement: "Lord, late have I loved you."
In today's short parable, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders who are criticizing him for being merciful to sinners, "Tax collectors and prostitutes said no to God, but then obeyed him, while you said yes, then did not obey." Like the two sons of the vineyard owner, sinners refused God's invitation, then changed their minds, while the leaders claimed they were doing God's will, but never acted accordingly.
We have the saying, "Better late than never," and this describes the rush of sinners to John the Baptist's call to justice, while the religious leaders held back. It also describes how sinners came to Jesus when he announced God's mercy, while the priests and elders had only criticism and self-righteous scorn for Jesus' message. Who was being saved? The sinners, even if they were late in coming. Who was being lost? The self-righteous who excluded themselves because God was being just too generous.
The opening line of this simple yet powerful parable, "A man had two sons," reminds us of another parable, "The Prodigal Son." Perhaps today's parable was an early version of the more developed and dramatic appeal to be merciful. The younger son rejects his father and squanders his share of the estate, but then repents and is welcomed back, while the older son obeys his father on the surface but lives in bitter resentment and refuses to accept his brother when the father welcomes him home.
The Word comes to us today to remind us not only to let God be God in how merciful God is with others, but also to invite us to imitate our merciful God, who loves all of us in the same way. The only thing that can keep us out of heaven, both now and in eternity, is our own self-righteous resentment of others we judge to be less worthy of God's love than we are.
The challenge is to respond to God quickly and fully and not waste our lives measuring our virtues against other people's sins. If we do this, we will miss the gracious relationship God is seeking with us here and now, and we will know the regret of having come late to divine Mercy when it was always there, waiting for us to say yes.