Like many of Jesus’ teachings, the one we find in today’s parable of the two sons is multi-leveled. On one level the message of the parable might be summed up in a proverb like “Actions speak louder than words.” On another, the parable is more subtle. Notice what Jesus does with it. He compares the chief priests and elders of the people to the son who is all talk and the tax-collectors and prostitutes to the son who in the end does the father’s will. And the example he cites to show his analogy is apt is the way each responded to the preaching of John the Baptist.
John came preaching a message of judgment and repentance. The chief priests were stung by John’s suggestion that they might be subject to judgment and in need of repentance, and so rejected him. The tax-collectors (Jews who collaborated with the hated Romans to fleece their own people) and the prostitutes heard John and recognized the truth of his words. They knew he was a prophet of God, and they knew they were in need of repentance. They may very well have felt trapped in their life and unable to change their ways, but they knew they were in bad shape and responded to John’s preaching as a flower might respond to the first droplets of rain in a parched desert.
The chief priests and elders talked a good show, and if the only norm of conduct were respectability, they’d have it all over the tax-collectors and prostitutes. The latter were definitely disreputable, but when God sent them a prophet, they believed in him because they knew what they were, and they knew they needed help.
There are any number of ways of saying all this. One would be that there are only two kinds of people in this world: sick people who know they are sick and know they need a doctor, and sick people who think they’re perfectly healthy and think they don’t need a doctor. The first can be cured. The second can’t. Peter Kreeft says it another way. He says that the two kinds of people on earth are saints who know they are sinners and sinners who think they are saints. The first can be forgiven. The second can’t.
What the tax-collectors and prostitutes had going for them was that they were in touch with reality. They know who and what they were, so they knew they needed help, and they recognized that help in John the Baptist and in Jesus much more often than the chief priests and elders of the people did.
The ancients used to say that the beginning of wisdom was to know oneself. It’s a life’s work to do so, but the more we know ourselves, the more we’ll know our need of healing, and the deeper will be our relationship to the Divine Physician. Come to think of it, It’s probably not a very healthy sign that so few Catholics nowadays feel the need for confession.