But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32)
In Christ’s parable, it is not the son who immediately agrees to do his father’s bidding who actually does it. Rather, it is the son who immediately refuses to obey his father, who repents and then fulfills the task which was given him. It is a parable which shows that repentance (a change of heart and mind) is a normal part of God’s Kingdom. One could from the get-go refuse to do God’s will, but if one repents, one’s repentance and effort will be welcomed by our Heavenly Father. On the other hand, many who would never think of directly disobeying the Father, choose in other ways to disobey him and never repent of their decision. It is another version of the Prodigal Son parable and lesson. God is ever patient and welcomes our return to His graces when we repent of disobeying or dismissing Him. The Lord Jesus points out that when God sent His Son into the world, it is those who first refused to obey God who welcome the opportunity to return to Him. Those who had made a show of obeying the Father but then ‘secretly’ avoided doing what they were told did not welcome the chance to be made right with the Father through the Son.
Here is another story, this time from the desert fathers, about two men, both monks, who boast about what they have done in their spiritual endeavors. It is the elder who points out to them that despite their ‘accomplishments’, neither was doing what God had asked of them. In the end, it is carrying out God’s will which matters, no matter how impressive our self-glorifying accomplishments might be.
Two brethren went to an elder who lived alone in Scete. And the first one said: Father, I have learned all of the Old and New Testaments by heart. The elder said to him: You have filled the air with words. The other one said: I have copied out the Old and New Testaments and have them in my cell. And to this one the elder replied: You have filled your window with parchment. But do you not know Him who said: The kingdom of God is not in words, but in power? And again, Not those who hear the Law will be justified before God but those who carry it out. They asked him, therefore, what was the way of salvation, and he said to them: The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and humility with patience. (Thomas Merton, THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT, pp74-75)
People can memorize huge portions of Scripture, read the Bible from cover to cover a dozen times, learn all of the intricacies of theology, or expound on subtleties of morality like the legendary Philadelphian lawyer, but fail to do the most simple things that God asks of us. Let us love one another as Christ loves us.