We grow accustomed to rash promises and empty assurances. We pacify one another by stating as fact what we know deep down is really only a hope or a wish. We announce what we’d like to have happen rather than what we intend to do. Most of the time we don’t mean any harm; the deception rolls off the tongue carelessly, with little or no serious consideration. And then we get used to decoding each other’s messages and making adjustments that will reveal the actual truth. Often we wish that speech would be more direct and dependable; we praise those who are known for the unfailing truth and reliability of what they say. We remark that they speak bluntly or that they don’t mince words.
In times past, not all that long ago, this peculiar human characteristic would have been noted under the heading “original sin.” We would have regarded it as one of the curses for which we need a savior. Big Daddy, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” would have scornfully called it mendacity. Exposed as we are today to the endless conversation of the entire world, disgusted as we are with its duplicity and dishonesty, we get weary of the whole mess, tired of living in suspicion of so much of what we read and hear, sick of having to examine and select, judge and reject. We think of heaven as that state of being in which, at last, yes always means yes, and no always means no – period!
It’s possible to talk to God deceptively, too. Jesus saw that and said that it isn’t those who cry out “Lord, Lord!” who enter the Kingdom, but those who do the will of his father. “Say yes,” he insisted, “when you mean yes; say no when you mean no. Everything else is from the devil.” And in the crisp parable he used in today’s gospel excerpt, he tells of one son who gave a perfect response to his father’s order but had no intention of carrying it out, while the other son flat out refused to obey but then repented and did what his father had commanded. Good answer/bad action in one case; bad answer/good action in the other.
Repentance is a process; it’s what can happen between the bad answer and the good action. That bad answer can begin very spontaneously, almost thoughtlessly, and can last a long time while the process of thinking things over goes on. Reason and grace shed brighter light, emotions cool and change, vision sharpens, the will begins to bend. Finally repentance has been achieved and a new decision is firmly in place.
I have the impression that many people do not understand this phenomenon, or at least don’t recognize it as applying to them. They remember only that their lives were once a no to God, and they can’t put that aside. They torture themselves with an endless accusation. But the Spirit of God was in them all along, gradually turning wrong into right, no into yes. And that is all that matters. Like the chaos that preceded the formation of the universe, the Spirit hovers over their lives – our lives – and draws new life in closer union with God.