On this 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I want to begin by putting in front of us some phrases I am sure you have all heard. “Talk is cheap, it’s actions that count.” “You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” “Actions speak louder than words.”
There are those who will haughtily dismiss these thoughts as mere truisms. It is probable that those who dismiss them want to avoid paying attention to how these thoughts apply to their relationships with others.
You and I have all been hurt by promises given and then broken. Some of us have been given sweet talk and words of love only to later discover that we were, in the name of love, only used. On other occasions we have been given words that have hurt us, really hurt us, not because they were nasty but because we relied on them and were later betrayed.
What was the setting for Matthew’s Gospel (21:28-32) account about the two sons? Jesus had the day before thrown the moneychangers out of the Temple and the infuriated the chief priests and elders of the people. He was back in the Temple the next day when He addressed the words we heard in this Gospel to those same chief priests and elders, and thus exposed their insincere hypocrisy.
Jesus, as we all know, had His greatest conflicts with the religious “know-it-alls” that He encountered. He faces that same trouble with many of us today. I know in my own experience as a priest I’ve had my greatest troubles not with sinners but with religious “know-it-alls.” There is nothing like coming up against someone who is not a Catholic, or who was formerly a Catholic, who think they know what the Church teaches and who are quite wrong about those teachings.
That was the main problem Jesus was facing when He encountered the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people. They thought they knew everything they had to know about the coming Messiah and just what sort of savior he would be, or should be. Moreover, they had memorized all of the rules and regulations, they knew them in detail, but they didn’t apply them to themselves. Oh, they applied them to everyone else, laying heavy burdens on people, but they excused themselves.
If I were asked what the main theme of this Sunday’s readings were all about I would say it’s about honest sincerity.
Honesty is at the core of our truly religious expressions, particularly being honest with ourselves. Sin, we must remember, originates with the Father of Lies, and when we lie to ourselves we always get into deep trouble.
In the Gospel account we just heard the younger brother tell his father: “Yes, I’ll go and work” while the older brother said: “No, not me.” Both used words contrary to their actions.
Talk is cheap. The younger brother simply didn’t live up to his words; the older brother changed his mind. The older brother had integrity; the younger brother gave cheap, valueless words to his father while having no intention at all of working. How many of us recognize ourselves in that younger brother?
The older brother had no intention of working and then had the honesty of saying so to his father. He was wrong, but he was honest. The younger brother was the opposite. He said the expedient thing to his father knowing what his father wanted to hear but he had no integrity. He was insincere because he had no intention of working even though he said he would.
How many of us pray that way? We give God the words of our prayers, words we think He wants to hear from us. It’s convenient for us. We may even be self-deluded when we speak them and end up feeling like we are pious and religious. On the surface we feel righteous but deep down we know full well that we are not going to follow through on those words with our deeds and our actions. So we give God our Father in heaven nice sounding words but never seem to get around to following through on them. God is not fooled but we fool ourselves.
So, to go back now: What is vital to our personal religion?
The first thing is honesty. We must be fearlessly and courageously honest with God and likewise honest with ourselves. Without honesty we are doomed. Without honesty in our business and professional lives we will fail. People will discover we are frauds. It’s a lesson currently be learned on Wall Street. Without honesty our love relationships will collapse, our friendships will be lost, and we will end up in a hell on earth as well as in the hereafter. Satan, we must all remember, is the Father of Lies and he wants us to be just like him.
The older son did the essential thing. Christianity is not simply our intellectual assent to a series of doctrines. It is not just our observance of rules and regulations. No. Christianity is a way of living in the truth. Christianity is a matter of living in our professional lives, in our personal relationships with others, and living with God in the truth, all the while being honest with ourselves, all the while being sincere in what we say to others and in how we treat them.
Christianity is a way of living at home and in our surrounding world; Christianity is a way of relating to those around us, friends and well as strangers, in the way, the truth, and the life of Christ Jesus. If we are honest with others, honest with ourselves, and honest with God then our actions will automatically follow. We will live lives of sincere integrity and act accordingly; we will live lives in happiness.
Talk is cheap; intentions are too often little more than wishful thinking; appearances are deceptive. Being honest and then acting in honesty are sometimes tough things to do. Sincere honesty is one of the hardest and most demanding of things about being a Christian. It is the “narrow way” Jesus told us about, that narrow way that is the road to our eternal salvation, the way of living that Jesus puts in front of the likes of you and me.