Perhaps you’ve heard this saying: “You talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” How about this one: “Talk is cheap”? These popular sayings convey a simple but significant truth: One’s actions should correspond with one’s talk.
In biblical terms, this is the all-important connection between words and ways. The two should be of one accord. They are to be rooted in the words and the ways of God. “I will ponder your precepts,” stated the Psalmist, “and consider your paths. … I will never forget your word” (Ps 119:15,16b).
Alas, such promises are easier to make than to keep. The Old Testament has many stories of men and women forgetting God’s word and rejecting his precepts. Isaiah explained the problem: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways ...” (Is 55:8).
The same truth is expressed in today’s first reading. Like all prophets, Ezekiel had a mostly thankless job that involved reminding the people of their sins and warning them of the punishment that would come if they remained disobedient. The prophet had already delivered the news of this punishment (Ez 4:4-6;14:10), and the people had responded as stubborn sinners usually do: By complaining that God was not being fair! After all, it’s much easier make accusations than it is to make a good confession. “Is it my way that is unfair,” the Lord asks, “or rather, are not your ways unfair?” It is a question equally divine and rhetorical, for God certainly knew the answer and so did the people, even if they didn’t want to admit it.
A similar scenario is recorded in today’s Gospel. Jesus, having entered Jerusalem with full knowledge of his approaching Passion, was directly challenged by the chief priests and elders, who demanded to know the basis for his authority (Mt 21:23). Jesus responded with his own question, about the nature of John the Baptist’s work: Was it from heaven or from men? In doing so, he rendered his interlocutors defenseless, allowing him to present the parable of the two sons.
This is one of the more direct and simple parables, the meaning of which could hardly be missed by Jesus’ opponents. The first son, who initially refused the father’s request to “work in the vineyard today,” eventually changed his mind — in other words, he repented — and did the work. He represents those who responded positively to John the Baptist’s message of repentance (Mt 3:1-6). The second son, after giving his word of obedience to the father, did not go to the vineyard. He represents those religious leaders who say the right things (that is, preach and teach the Law) but reject the call of John the Baptist (Mt 3:7-10), even while tax collectors and prostitutes accepted John’s message (see Lk 7:29-30).
Notice that Jesus referred to “the way of righteousness” preached by John. This is the same “way” spoken of repeatedly in the Old Testament: “I will run the way of your commandments. … Lord, teach me the way of your statutes” (Ps 119:32,33). God calls his people to hear his word and then keep their word.
We are to hear the Word of God — that is, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ — and respond in faith and love. By his parables, Jesus “invites people to the feast of the kingdom, but he also asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. Words are not enough, deeds are required” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 546).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.