Recently I was listening to a satirical current affairs programme on the radio. One of the participants picked up on a comment that a certain political figure “didn’t have the answers” by quipping that he did have the answers, but he hadn’t shown his workings. We all know this kind of politician, those campaigning on a ticket they will ultimately struggle to deliver upon, because the end goal requires a number of tricky steps in the process.
We recognise this kind of politician because we ourselves are capable of acting in the same way. We might want to cling on to the right answer before we have discovered why it is the right answer, or even if it is the right answer. We want to wallow in the feeling of being right, rather than dwell in the knowledge of our assured victory.
Today’s Gospel puts before us two polarised responses to God’s invitation for us to realise our salvation – a rejection followed by repentance, and an acceptance followed by inaction. Both of these positions characterise our response to God’s call.
The latter – the position of those committed to a fairly flimsy yes – reflects the circumstances of most of those to whom the Lord addresses this parable: those who have entered into a covenant with God, who have already tried to say yes. The former group are those who through ignorance and sin have failed to acknowledge their need of God’s mercy until it is revealed to them through the grace of repentance. The Lord seeks to redefine the distinction between these two groups. Before his coming, there was no entrance to the covenant for those who were not chosen, the Gentiles. There was no access for them to the promise. Nor was there a way back for sinners, those whose actions had brought upon them rejection, exclusion. His coming provides a way back. This is a process of repentance, even for those who have said a fulsome No, either at the beginning or later through sinful action. They are no longer defined by that rupturing action, but by the joyful action of turning back, working out the law of God in their daily lives and striving to remain in it constantly, finding within it the source of their joy. In such a way, every step of their path from the slavery and darkness of sin to the fullness of redemption is marked, and when their journey is complete, they have shown their workings.
Often we find ourselves saying no to God’s mercy, or perhaps just saying not just yet. In these times we need God’s help, and the help of the Church, to see the error of our ways. At these points, grace helps us to see the beauty of the right answer at the end. We do feel it is right, but we’re not sure why. We haven’t done all the workings yet. We have to apply ourselves once more. What is more dangerous is when we opt for that flimsy yes, and set out on a path of self-delusion (or mutual delusion) whereby we pay lip service to the Gospel yet the message does not flow through us or take any effect on us. At such points we say yes with our lips, but our hearts do not follow. We may be simply convincing ourselves that we are right, rather than knowing why we should be so sure.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that the promise of salvation is sure and certain. We can see that clearly. God asks us if we want it. If we say no, there is a pathway back, but that pathway is tough. It has to be worked at. If we say yes, then we have to show our workings. And in so doing, we experience the fullness of the righteousness of God.