The newly-crowned King Charles III of the United Kingdom has two sons who almost daily seize international headlines. William, the Prince of Wales, and his wife Kate happily fill the pages of tabloids with joyous depictions of British family life and Commonwealth good will. Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meagan unluckily provoke reports of internecine rivalry and international hostility. Across the Atlantic Ocean, another prominent parent balances the history of two sons. President Biden rightly laments the tragic death due to brain cancer of his war hero son Beau while at the same time facing daily rumors and charges concerning the activities of his younger son Hunter.
Although he was an only child, Jesus Christ was keenly aware of such vagaries within family life. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, the Savior cites two young men raised in the same family yet taking greatly divergent views on filial responsibilities. The brief parable is quite pointed. “A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.”
Even God the Father faced sometimes challenging and sometimes consoling turns of events in the lives of his two most prominent sons. Adam, the first earthly son of God, unhappily proved to be a great disappointment. The story from the Book of Genesis is quite familiar. “But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil. The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Here Adam, along with his wife Eve, both children of God, greatly let their father down by clearly and selfishly disobeying his explicit command not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the fabled grounds. Plainly surrounded by all the comforts of nature and grace in the storied Garden of Eden, Adam was still tempted to rise above his station, falling for the devil’s clever offer: “…you will be like gods…” Unlike the parable’s second son in this Sunday’s Gospel account who, upon second thought, humbled himself and carried out the father’s request to work in the vineyards, Adam viewed obedience to God the Father’s command not to eat as demeaning, belittling and patronizing. Adam wanted to go beyond obedience and, like the first son, become his own boss, make his own decisions and take the leading role. Yes, Adam wanted to be God.
In dramatic, even graphic, contrast to Adam’s prideful ambitions is the humble obedience of God the Father’s other Son, Jesus Christ. Consider the words from this Sunday’s passage from St. Paul to the Philippians: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and, found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christ not only serves as an obedient son, but is literally served up as a scapegoat for his erring brothers and sisters. Clearly, Christ’s obedience is not at all wasted. The Father takes good note of his docile son’s deference: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As the two sons’ decisions in the Gospel parable indicate, and as the divergent histories of Adam and Christ reveal, disobedience to God’s expressed will is condemnation while obedience to God’s revealed will is glorification.