The first reading brings out the difficulty in complaining to God about fairness in his judgments. As the Lord tells us through the prophet, it is not he who is unfair to us, but rather we who are unfair to him. Even if we are currently walking in the way of virtue and righteousness, how can we be sure that we will remain in it? Apart from the grace of God, it is impossible for us to please him, to remain steadfast in our good purposes. The moment we begin to rely on ourselves for our righteousness, we lose touch with the grace which makes it possible. That’s why the Psalmist says: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.” We need God to show us the truth about our sinfulness. We need God to be our savior, to save us from the paths that we will inevitably walk without him.
This is the story of Israel, the story of the history of salvation. This is the constant theme of the prophets and of Jesus and of the Catholic Church. Turn to God and be saved. Turn away from your sin and trust in him. Repent and believe. If we say we trust in him, if we profess that we believe: that is an excellent first step. It is a necessary step, one taken, by the way, only through the impulse of grace and not something that we do for ourselves. Believing and trusting in God comes as a result of the reception of his grace. In this reception, a relationship is forged which requires a response on our part. If we fail to respond, then we cannot receive the relationship in full, nor can we live out that relationship with fidelity.
This is the case for the second son of the parable who says “Yes,” but will not go out into the vineyard of his father. It appears that he has responded appropriately but it is in reality only a facade. Whereas, the second son, who fails to respond appropriately and appears to be in open rebellion, then changes his mind (the Greek word means that he repents) and goes into the vineyard. Jesus says likewise, it is not the chief priests and elders who do the Father’s will with their “yes” but do not live fully from that relationship by conforming their hearts, minds and deeds to their affirmation. It is the tax collectors and prostitutes, who having said “no” to the invitation, later change their hearts, minds and deeds. The latter are living by grace upon dependency from their Father in heaven. And so they are entering the kingdom of God.
We may find ourselves in both situations. I sometimes say “yes” but fail to go. I sometimes say “no” and then repenting of my refusal seek the mercy of God. There are two important words for mercy in our Psalm today. “Remember that your compassion, O Lord, and your love are from of old.” The first word for mercy is translated here as compassion. It is a word related to the word for a mother’s womb, with all the associations of affection, tenderness, compassion, pity and mercy. We read in Isaiah (49:15): “Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? and if she should forget, yet I will not forget you.”
God’s steadfast love, his covenanted love, arise from who he is. This is the second word for mercy, translated in the psalm as love, but also meaning kindness, loyalty, steadfastness, faithfulness, goodness and mercy. He is the Beautiful One, Goodness Itself. Although we, who are sinners, have merited nothing but to be forgotten, God will never forget us. God has not forgotten us: in Jesus, his Only Begotten Son, the covenant was kept, the promise fulfilled, grace made possible. We are invited to share not just the results of the faithfulness of Jesus. We are invited to share in the relationship of Jesus with his Father. We are given a participation in the Spirit, says St. Paul. And so, St. Paul also exhorts us to be of the same attitude, that is, mind and heart that was in Jesus. The life of grace is offered to us. But it requires us to be conformed to Jesus, the Son who both said “yes” and went. Because of him, God does not remember the sins of our youth, or even of yesterday, nor any of our transgressions. When we make memory here upon the altar of the death and resurrection of our Lord, the Father in his kindness remembers us, because of his goodness, tenderness and sweetness. He has not forgotten us. Let us not forget him.