Saint Hilary of Poitiers gives us an interesting interpretation of today’s Gospel. The saying of “Yes” represents the consent of faith, the act of obedience to the Word of God. The group who said, “no” but later did as the father commanded represents the Pharisees and scribes who did not convert at the words of John the Baptist, but later, after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the opening of the way of salvation they began to do the works of faith. The other group represents the prostitutes and publicans who repented when they heard John the Baptist but were unable to perform the works of obedience that father commanded. Saint Hilary gives the proof of this interpretation in the fact that the Gospel simply says the son didn’t do what he said. Saint Hilary suggests that the son who didn’t do the father’s bidding was actually prevented by something. In other words, the lives of the prostitutes and publicans did not change even though they believed and repented. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do God’s will, but that the way of Salvation had not yet been opened.
This interpretation is important because as we evaluate our own lives and how we live out our faith, we have to remember the primacy of God’s grace. We cannot simply fix ourselves because we admit our fault and ask for forgiveness. There is a real obstacle that keeps us from doing what God asks of us. That obstacle is our own sin and unwillingness, and it can only be changed by the grace of God. If we live that out in our lives, relying on God’s grace and mercy, He removes the obstacle through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus saves us, we cannot save ourselves. Waiting during Advent is a joyous and hopeful time because we know that God wants to touch our hearts with His Grace through the birth of Jesus Christ.
CYRIL OF JERUSALEM:
Take heart, O Jerusalem, the Lord will take away your iniquities. The Lord will wash away the filth of his sons and daughters by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning. He will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your sins. Choiring angels shall encircle you, chanting, “Who is it that comes up all white and leaning upon her beloved?” For the soul that was formerly a slave has now accounted its Lord as its kinsman, and he, acknowledging its sincere purpose, will answer, “Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, ah, you are beautiful … your teeth are like a flock of ewes to be shorn”—a sincere confession is a spiritual shearing. And further: “all of them big with twins,” signifying the twofold grace, either that perfected by water and the Spirit or that announced in the Old and in the New Testament. God grant that all of you, your course of fasting finished, mindful of the teaching, fruitful in good works, standing blameless before the spiritual bridegroom, may obtain the remission of your sins from God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.1
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
As far as the deeper meaning of the passage is concerned, it clearly commands Jerusalem to rejoice exceedingly, to be especially glad, to cheer up wholeheartedly as its trespasses are wiped out, evidently through Christ. The spiritual and holy Zion—that is, the church, the holy multitude of the believers—is justified in Christ and only in him. By him and through him we are also saved as we escape from the harm of the invisible enemies, for we have a Mediator who was incarnated in our form, the king of all, that is, the Word of God the Father. Thanks to him, we do not see evil anymore, for we have been delivered from the powers of evil. He [the Word] is the armor of good will, the peace, the wall, the one who bestows incorruption, the arbiter of the crowns, who shut down the war of the incorporeal Assyrians and made void the schemes of the demons.2
INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW:
What does it mean to work in the vineyard? To work in the vineyard is to do justice. We noted above that the vineyard is the justice that God has planted generally in the nature of all people but more particularly in the Jewish Scriptures. Each vine in the vineyard represents a different type of justice, and each person, according to his individual virtues, produces either more or fewer vines. I do not know of anyone, however, who is sufficient to work the entire vineyard.
“And he said, ‘I will not.’ ” How did he say, “I will not”? He said it in his thoughts, for whoever understands the difference between good and evil and abandons the good to follow evil seems to be rebelling against the Lord in his thoughts; for “I will not” is spoken against the faculty of the intellect, which was created by God for himself. No one would ever have been able to sin unless he had first said in his heart “I will not,” as the prophet indicates: “Injustice speaks within him that he might sin.” The pagans, who abandoned God and his justice from the beginning and converted to the worship of idols and to a life of sin, seem to have rebelled in their thoughts, as though they had said, “We will not do the justice which we learned from you.”
“Approaching the other,” Jesus asked the same thing, and he replied, “ ‘I will go,’ but he did not go.” When the Jewish people, represented here by the younger son, were asked both by Moses and by John the Baptist, as though God were speaking through each of them, they promised that they would do everything the Lord commanded. Afterwards, however, they turned away and lied to God, as the prophet had foretold: “Foreign sons deceived me.”3
HILARY OF POITIERS:
The first son represents the people who are from the Pharisees. Urgently admonished by God through the prophecy of John to conform themselves to his commandments, they remained insolent, disobedient and contemptuous to God’s warnings.6 They put their faith in the law and despised repentance from sin, glorying instead in the noble prerogative that they had from Abraham. Later they came to believe through the miracles worked by the apostles after the resurrection of the Lord, and, having returned by a faithful act of the will to evangelical works, they repented and confessed the guilt of their former insolence.
The second son represents the group of publicans and sinners who later returned to the sinful state in which they lived at the time. They were instructed by John to expect salvation from Christ and to be baptized and to believe in him. When the Lord says in the parable that the second son did not go as he promised to do, he shows that these people believed John. But because they were not able to receive the teaching of the gospel through the apostles until after the Lord’s Passion (for it was then that the mysteries of human salvation were to be accomplished), they did not go. He didn’t say that they refused to go but simply that they did not go. Their failure to go does not make them guilty of disbelief, because to do so would have been very difficult. Therefore it is not that the second son did not want to do immediately what he was ordered to do but rather that he was unable to do it. His will is shown free from guilt by the obstacles of the circumstance.4
- CATECHETICAL LECTURE 3.16. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (pp. 217–218). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON ZEPHANIAH 43. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (p. 218). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILY 40. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 136). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MATTHEW 21.13–14. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (pp. 136–137). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.