Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”
“Time alone reveals the just; A villain is detected in a day” ~ Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
The relationship with one’s father is often where the deepest things happen, but also the most painful. This is the key to understanding what goes on within us. For it is in the relationship with our father that we realize the difference between what we show outwardly and what we are on the inside: the desire to be loved often hides behind rebellion, jealousy is perhaps covered over by rejection, fear of confrontation shrinks behind defiance.
In Sophocles’ renowned tragedy, Oedipus discovers his deception at not being who others believe him to be: where he is famous and exalted by the people as the savior of the Fatherland, as the King who can free the city from the plague, he is forced to recognize rather that he is the cause of the catastrophe. Oedipus did not know who he was because he does not see his relationship with his father clearly.
The backstory of the tragedy however is just as important: Oedipus was sold by his father, the King of Thebes, in order to avoid the fulfillment of a prophecy by which he would be killed by his own son. It’s a prophecy that can’t not come true because, as Freud would say, it is inevitable that the son should kill the father in order to outlive him. In this vision, the father is always the one who stifles your existence. In Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus kills his father – without realizing it’s him – and inadvertently marries his mother: as if to say that only by killing his father can Oedipus be fulfilled as a man.
In the parable that Jesus tells there are also ambiguities in the relationship with the father. Rather than two sons, it seems as though Jesus shows us two attitudes equally present in us: protest on the one hand, and complacency on the other. Our protests are often unfounded; in reality they are only a way to express our need to be loved. Even babies, at a certain point in their development, have the need to say no, often for no reason other than to mark off their personal space and indicate that they are there willingly. Perhaps it is similar for the first son of the parable; refusal is a way to assert his own existence.
However, we are also marked by complacency, often caused by fear of losing affection. We say yes even when we don’t want to for fear of bothering others, of causing frustration in others, or to maintain a relationship that would otherwise crack. As Jesus shows us, protest and complacency are rarely authentic behaviors but merely varnishes.
Of course, all of this can also happen in one’s relationship with God who presents himself as our Father. Jesus is probably thinking of that part of the people of Israel that is obsessively concentrated on the duties required for obtaining God’s favor. Jesus calls their attention to the fact that perhaps this outward observance of the Law is not fully consistent with what lies in their hearts. On the contrary, many times the ostentation of strictness and merely external asceticism only hide – from oneself and from others – what one truly has in their heart. A little earlier, in Mt 15:8, Jesus had said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” quoting the prophet Isaiah.
From a psychological point of view, we know that the outward expression is often a structure that we build or that we seek refuge in to avoid seeing what is truly in our hearts. The publicans and prostitutes that Jesus refers to are free from this outer cloak of the Law; they are offenders. They are clothed and seen as they truly are and for this reason they can at least be surer of their own authenticity.
The parable that Jesus shares with us is an invitation, in a way, to strip ourselves bare, to take off for a moment the coverings of our roles, our habits and our rituals so that we may see ourselves as we truly are in the complex and mysterious depths of our relationship with the Father.
Questions for personal reflection:
- Do you tend more towards protest or complacency?
- How consistent is your outward behavior with what you carry in your heart?