Jesus was always on the side of the powerless and those who were despised.
The powerless might have been beggars, or day labourers who didn’t know where their and their families next meal would come from, or those who barely got by, who lived in fear of losing everything, of ending up as beggars. They were the ones who found some of the rules of Jewish religious law difficult to keep, sometimes impossible. After all, if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, you won’t be too fussy about diet rules. Because of this the powerful religious authorities despised them.
Today’s gospel is set in the period between Jesus entrance into Jerusalem, the entrance we celebrate on Palm Sunday, and the Last Supper. In these days Jesus confronts the powerful ones in Jerusalem, the chief priests, and the wealthy, those who had done well out of the Roman Empire.
In this parable he tells the powerful ones that they are like the son who says ‘Yes Dad, of course I’ll do what you want’ but then doesn’t! As the reading from Ezekiel points out, the upright man who renounces his integrity and commits sin, dies.
He further confronts the powerful by comparing them with the most despised - tax collectors and prostitutes - and points out that the despised are open to conversion, open to grace, where the powerful are not. The despised listened to John the Baptist’s call to conversion where the powerful ignored it.
Jesus was always on the side of those who were despised. Today we heard the wonderful hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Jesus was divine, yet he chose to empty himself, to become like us, and even more, to become like the most despised and rejected of humanity, accepting death on a cross.
So are we willing to listen to the despised, to hear the voice of those at the bottom of our society?
Jesus saw clearly that the rich and powerful in his society were not open to change, were not open to justice. They knew their scriptures of course, and like the second son in the parable could say the right thing ‘oh yes father, of course we’ll do the work required’. But where the second son didn’t then go out to do the hard work in the heat of the day, neither did the chief priests, the powerful ones, go out and do the hard work of justice, of supporting the poor, of conversion, which their scriptures demand.
So are we willing to listen to the voice of the despised? Are we willing to act for those who may not be respectable, who we might prefer to ignore because they’ve been in jail, or they’re addicted, or they’re unemployable.
This is very challenging, particularly if we are educated, respectable people ourselves. Like the first son in the parable our initial reaction might be that this is all too hard. We’re comfortable, thank you very much. Of course we prefer to mix with people like us. But let’s read the gospels, and ask ourselves who do we think Jesus would be with?