Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Good intentions are never enough

Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year A

A few months ago, I was out for lunch with a friend who “just happened to be in town.” The topic of conversation eventually led to a discussion about our current pope, Pope Francis. Like so many others, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, my friend expressed his profound fondness for the present pontiff and admired him for his casual, simple and down-to-earth manner. He remarked, “You know, He really makes me feel like going for mass everyday!” Now this was a surprised because I never imagined my friend to be the religious and pious type. And so I quipped, “Have you? Have you started attending mass daily?” His reply was unabashedly quick, “Of course not, but he still makes me feel like doing it.”

I guess that what often makes us tick these days. The thought that we might actually make changes in our lives, do something special, go out on a limb, seem quite like the real thing. But the truth of the matter is that good intentions are not enough. This reminds me of the riddle: Imagine, five seagulls are sitting on a dock. One of them decides to fly away. How many seagulls are left?
It seems like a no-brainer answer -“Well … four.”
You should know by now that riddles are never meant to be that simple, there’s always a catch. The actual answer is five. This is because deciding to fly away and actually flying away are two very different things. Despite popular belief to the contrary, there is absolutely no power in intention. The seagull may intend to fly away, may decide to do so, may talk with the other seagulls about how wonderful it is to fly, but until the seagull flaps his wings and takes to the air, he is still on the dock.

In today’s parable of the two sons, Jesus exposes the fallacy that merely good intentions are sufficient. They aren’t. Here, Jesus points to the gap that exists between lip service paid in public and the actions which should have followed our verbal avowals of goodness. The parable begins with a father who gives an order to his two sons to go out and work in his vineyard. The first son was a bit of a rebel. When his father asked him to help with the chores, he railed and ranted and refused. We can almost hear the voice of our teenager defiantly telling his father, “Dad, I have other plans. My friends are coming over. Doing chores is no fun. Just leave me alone.” But a funny thing happened. He changed his mind and did the work his father asked him to do. And then there was the second son who certainly had loads of good intentions. That should count for something. He didn’t rebel when his father asked him to work in the field. He didn’t talk back. He said all the right things. But his good intentions were never translated into action.

To the question of Jesus, “Which of the two did the father’s will?” the Pharisees answered correctly: “The first.” By means of his parable Jesus points to something essential for those who profess themselves as his disciples – in the matter of obedience to God’s will – it is better by far to move from bad intentions to positive action, than to remain locked into good intentions and no action. Really and truly, this parable is a powerful lesson in repentance. We evade, we fail, we fall, we slide, we slip, we stumble, we sin, but our loving Heavenly Father is always there, ready to pick us up…if only we open ourselves to repent, to change, to live in harmony with God’s way and will, to become what God has created and called us to be. Repentance takes us beyond good intentions. Repentance moves us beyond our historical baggage.

Just as Ezekiel proposed in the first reading that it is possible for a wicked person to turn from evil to good and vice versa, so the two sons in the parable are not irrevocably tethered by their past. Indeed, the son who said yes but did not go seems to be representative of all those people who possess a smug sense of self-righteousness and who are contented with their noble and good intentions, but never really lift a finger to make a difference. Whereas, the son who rebelled but then acquiesced is representative of people who acknowledge themselves as sinners, whose checkered past would seem to have left them closed to change but ultimately through a change of heart, through genuine repentance, become the actual recipients of grace. The story reminds us that our past background, our previous conditioning, and all the trouble that life has thrown at us and even past sinful habits are really not decisive in charting a course for the future. It is reminiscent of a voice-over commentary that appears at the beginning and at the end of the comic-book to movie character, Hell Boy, where in answer to the profoundly philosophical question of “what makes a man a man?” the answer is, “it’s not how you decide to begin but how you choose to end it.”

Our culture today is obsessed with being nice, often believing that being nice, having good intentions is enough.  Comfortable and complacent, we too easily become very satisfied with the position we’ve settled into and focus on being nice people instead of doing all that is demanded of us in the gospel. We too easily substitute politeness for transformation. We too easily forget that the resurrection is still the defining force in our lives, and that things in our lives still need to die in order for the things of God to be brought to new life. We too easily think we’re just fine – “I’m OK, you are OK … actually that’s not OK”

People on the outside, however, those whose personal lives are in shambles, who are on the fringes, who are marginalised, know they need something. There is an emptiness, a thirst and a hunger in their lives. Those who recognise their neediness are in fact those who are most sensitive to their need for grace. It’s much easier to seek grace when you stand in desperate need of it. It’s much easier to seek radical transformation in your life when you realise how deeply you need it. The church is here to proclaim God’s grace. We need to remember that grace is still and always needed by those inside. And it is always available to those outside.

Every now and then, it’s good for us on this journey to sainthood to be reminded that we’re still pretty much sinners. We have feet of clay. Every time I’ve gotten just a little too comfortable with the correctness of my words, or the correctness of my deeds, it’s good to be reminded that my heart is always in need of transformation. Every time I’ve started to think it’s about me – about my words, and my deeds, and my efforts, and my intentions, I’m reminded that it’s about God – about what God is doing and how I need to make myself available to the ways God is working and moving through me. If it were all about me, I think the hope for the world would be slim indeed. What does most vital, however, is our personal openness to the grace and mercy of God. With such powerful help, even the most tawdry or sordid past can be forgotten and forgiven. For those of us who look back at countless failures and who labour under the heavy burden of a past littered with mistakes, this parable gives hope and encouragement.

And so we return to the parable once more: A man had two sons. One thought his words and good intentions would save him; the other thought his deeds would save him. In the end, it was the love and grace of their father that saved them, love and grace that can transform every human heart, including ones like ours.

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