Once upon a time there was a great king who was known for three things: his wisdom, his sense of justice, and his abhorrence of waste; indeed, the king was so frugal he insisted everything in his palace be gently used, maintained or repaired as needed, and carefully and lovingly preserved. One day the king’s prime minister died, and he had to choose a replacement. There were three members of his royal household whom the king considered suitable candidates: a nobleman, a scholar, and a common laborer or worker. The king devised a simple test to determine which of his aides should be promoted to prime minister. He brought in a valuable, exquisitely beautiful pearl and showed it to them, asking their opinion of it. All three expressed admiration for its beauty and luster. Then the king commanded the nobleman, “Take this hammer and smash the pearl into dust.” Knowing of the king’s hatred of waste, and assuming that if he ruined the pearl the king would be displeased, the nobleman refused, exclaiming, “Your Majesty, far be it from me to desecrate something so valuable!” The king then ordered the scholar, “Take this pearl and smash it,” only to have the scholar object, “But Sire, it would scar my soul to destroy something so beautiful,” while thinking “His Majesty is merely testing me to see if I would do something so rash or stupid.” Finally the king said to the common laborer, “Take this pearl and smash it.” Without hesitation, the laborer answered, “Yes, Your Highness,” and took the hammer and pounded the pearl into a small pile of useless dust. Knowing of the king’s hatred of waste, the other two aides loudly objected at this senseless destruction, but the king silenced them, saying, “Which is of greater value: a beautiful pearl, or obedience to the king’s royal command? Here is the man I can count on; he will be my new prime minister” (homily notebook, “Obedience”).
While the Lord wants us to appreciate all the blessings we’ve received from Him—including material possessions, our talents and abilities, and our capacity to think for ourselves—what He truly wants from us is a love and trust so deep that we will obey Him even when we don’t feel like it or understand. It’s easy to proclaim our faith in words, but it truly becomes valuable and real when we show it in our deeds.
More than perhaps at any other time in history, human beings today resent authority and insist on having things their own way; this is especially true in American society, which tends to undervalue tradition and overemphasize personal liberty. God’s standards, of course, are quite different, as we are reminded in the Scripture passages for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (18:25-28), the Lord explains to a sinful, rebellious people that His laws and judgments are intended to save sinners; this is always His overriding goal, even if the people fail to understand or complain that He’s being unfair according to their preferences and values. St. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Philippians (2:1-11) that we must try to have the same attitude as Christ: not acting out of an offended sense of justice or a desire for personal glory, nor trying to arrange everything for our own benefit, but instead sincerely wanting to know and do God’s holy will, rather than our own. This, fundamentally, is a matter of obedience, as Our Lord emphasizes in the Gospel of Matthew (21:28-32). The second son gave his father the right answer by agreeing to go out and work in the vineyard, but his word was worthless because he failed to act on it. The older son—perhaps out of resentment at being told what to do—refused at first, but later repented and did as his father asked. By means of this parable, Jesus was rebuking the religious leaders who were saying all the right things in their teachings and prayers, but failing to actually do what God wanted. As Jesus said, it was the public sinners who, despite their initial unworthiness and rebellion, were actually obeying God by repenting of their sins and accepting the Gospel. A façade of beautiful words counts for nothing unless our relationship with the Lord is built on a solid foundation of obedience and humility.
If you were a king, president, or business owner having to choose a chief executive officer, would you prefer a slick, polished yes-man whose promises were unreliable, or a gruff, unpolished, no-nonsense individual whose word was as good as gold? That’s an easy question to answer; we’d all choose the individual who wasn’t necessarily good with words, but who was very strong in deeds. Chances are we won’t find ourselves making such a decision very often, if ever—but all of us are constantly demonstrating to the Lord which of these two categories we belong to. Obedience is very important; in fact, when Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century and asked her to help promote devotion to His Sacred Heart, He told her that if ever He commanded her to do something, but her religious superior told her to do the opposite, she was to obey her superior (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, April 1996).
How are we to know exactly what the Lord is asking of us? Primarily through the teachings and the commandments of the Church—and if we obey, even though we don’t enjoy or understand them, we can be sure God is pleased with us. Sacred Scripture also teaches us how to live—but because it’s so easy to misinterpret it or read into it our own biases and desires (as so many people have done ever since the time of the Protestant Reformation or Revolt), it’s important that our use of the Bible be in accord with the Church’s teaching authority. We should also try to discern the Lord’s will for us through our own personal prayer and reflection—but again, our decisions and even our mystical experiences and private revelations, if any, should be subject to the Church’s approval. It’s when we want to do things our own way without any accountability to the Church that we open the door to Satan’s lies, deceptions, and temptations—whereas, by staying humble and obedient, we are slamming the door in the devil’s face.
Both of the two sons had some growing up to do, but at least the first son actually did what his father wanted. We for our part must strive to put God’s will first in both our words and our deeds, thereby proclaiming our faith and living it out each day. The more we try to do this, the farther we will advance along the way of perfection—and this journey brings us true peace in this world, and eternal happiness in the next.