There is a common genre of parable in Hebrew spirituality called the “Two Brothers Story.” The Hebrew Scriptures contain some famous “Two Brothers” stories. The narratives about Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob are a few examples. Jesus’ preaching also contains several examples of “Two Brothers” stories. The “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is one, and the parable in today’s Gospel reading is another.
The purpose of “Two Brothers” stories is to delineate a contrast between socially acceptable behavior and behavior that demonstrates greater virtue. A “Two Brothers” story composed for our culture might contrast the relative merits of two automobile drivers, one of whom engages in the socially acceptable practice of talking on a cell phone, while the other driver chooses not to engage in a distraction.
In the parable in today’s Gospel reading Jesus criticized a socially acceptable act of deceit. Jesus’ culture prized public honor and family reputation above all else. The son who refused to obey his father brought embarrassment to his family by his public refusal to do his father’s bidding. The son who lied to his father about working in the field would have been judged less harshly because he maintained the appearance of obedience in public.
Jesus used this easily understandable example from his culture to teach the difference between a religious practice consisting only of outward appearance and a religious practice consisting of on-going repentance. The religious leaders who were so critical of Jesus and his disciples used their religious practice as a means to judge and denigrate others. Jesus thought this to be utterly scandalous, particularly in a religion that held up love of God and neighbor as the highest social values.
In Jesus’ estimation, the appearance of propriety means very little, but the act of fidelity means everything.
Organized religion has a well-deserved reputation for harboring hypocrites. On the one hand, there is no better place for hypocrites than in church. At the very least, a hypocrite in church has the possibility of hearing the Word of God, and repenting. On the other hand, Jesus said that the appearance of propriety means nothing.
I would be the last person to deny the value of appropriate appearance. It used to be that anyone not suitably dressed for Sunday Mass would cause a ripple of discomfort in the congregation. Today, those who are dressed too casually for the beach are completely upstaged by the ones who bring their pets to church in an attempt to attract attention to themselves.
I’m entirely in favor of propriety. In fact, I am completely convinced that more propriety is better propriety. I am also completely convinced that no virtue of our own can make us pleasing to God. Only a living, growing faith in Jesus as Savior suffices to please God.
Appearances matter, but only to the degree that they are representations of the reality of our lives. A person whose religion and morality exist only for the purpose of gaining a good public reputation is not only living a lie but is, themselves, a lie.
Given the human capacity for deceit and self-delusion, each of us should take great care about the way we act and speak. Fortunately for us, there is the real possibility of living in a way that is not only truthful, but is also a proclamation of the Truth.
The religious leaders to whom Jesus spoke this parable had failed twice: they failed to repent when confronted by their own sins, and they failed to repent when they saw the example of public sinners repenting. (Matthew 21:32) The unfailing truth about human nature is that all of us need to repent of our sins on a continuing basis. Doing so, sets us squarely in the Truth.