When I look in the mirror, I see a nice-looking man in his mid-forties.
Then I look at my drivers’ license and it tells me the truth. And the truth is, I am well into what the golfers call “the back-nine” or jockeys call “the home stretch.”
In other words, I am old enough to take the Bible seriously on the subject of salvation. Ezekiel is warning me in our first reading; St. Paul is encouraging me in the second reading; and Jesus is speaking to me in today’s Gospel.
I want to go to heaven, but I know that’s not automatic—even for and especially for a priest.
In fact, judging by today’s readings, it’s not automatic for any of us.
There was once a man who told his friend “I don’t go to church. It’s full of hypocrites.”
“That’s not a good reason,” his friend replied. “There’s always room for one more.”
In today's parable, Our Lord tells us religious people to beware of hypocrisy. Beware of talking the walk, yet walking where you want.
It wouldn't be difficult to devote an entire homily to this theme. Every one of us who professes the Christian faith knows the danger of preaching what we don't practice—if only because we see it in others!
What's more, we can all think of examples of people who profess no faith, or who never darken the door of a church, but whose lives reflect a charity or compassion that few of us manage to achieve.
Lip-service counts for little, even in human affairs. That's why the first message of the parable is so easy for people to understand.
But there's more here than just a warning against hypocrisy, especially the religious kind. The wise scripture commentator William Barclay says that to understand the parable correctly we need to recognize that it isn't really praising anyone.
Neither of the two sons is the kind of child to bring real joy to the father's heart. Although the one who actually does something is way better than the other, both miss the mark.
The ideal child would be the one who accepted the Father's directions willingly and then carried them out.
And so it is with the real world. There are people who preach and profess what they don't practice, sanctimonious people who put piety ahead of virtue. And then there are the folks who practice but don't profess, people who show goodness while shunning religious observance.
That second class, the "anonymous Christians," as someone called them, are much more pleasing to God than the religious phonies.
But neither of these two groups of people is anything like perfect. Again the important point is that the best people are those in whom the talk and the walk meet and match. And it’s the best sort of people that we hope to become.
So let's not leave church this morning all resolved to swap our profession of faith in Christ with good deeds. That heresy leads nowhere. A sincere and mature faith in Christ fuels good deeds, and makes them better.
Finally, the parable reminds us that how we do a thing does matter. Sure, to promise to do something and not to do it is worse than not doing it all. But it's also true that a lack of courtesy and respect can take the shine off even the best of good deeds. We can spoil a good thing by the way we do it; that’s what happened with the second son despite the fact he obeyed in the end.
We Christians need to learn from both the sons in today's Gospel. Like the second son, we want to perform rather than just promise. But at the same time, we want to show God the readiness to obey which the first son expressed in words if not in action.
Either way, Jesus tells us it’s never too late to start doing the Father’s will, expressing with our lives the faith we have on our lips.
His message on this score can be summed up in three words. You’ll find them on the warning signs posted in every station of the London Underground, and at the door of every subway train: Mind the gap.
Let’s “mind the gap” –be always alert for the empty space between what we say and what we do.