Gospel: Matthew 21: 28-32
Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist best known for his theory of stages of moral development. He wanted to understand whether it existed a common and universal moral framework in the human mind and conscience that would make us capable to judge human behavior and decisions on a universal set of values. His question was: do our moral values are limited to a particular culture or is there a set of values universally valid for everyone no matter their cultural background? Fascinating question.
His hypothesis was that such set of universal values exist because as human beings we are all equal to one another and therefore those values can be found in any culture no matter the difference between them. For instance, he believed that justice was a value universally present in any culture. He also believed that any human being goes through the same stages of moral development, but He needed to prove that his hypothesis was correct so that he created a psychological instrument of analysis called “moral dilemma”. They are usually short stories where an individual faces a lethal riddle dilemma. There are just two options: one will lead to life and the other one to death. The reader has to decide which way the story will end through a set of questions.
I’ll give you a small example. In Edinborough, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. the drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid £400 for the radium and charged £4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Oliver, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about £2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So, having tried every legal means, Oliver gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. And then you would have to answer a series of questions that would help K. to understand what values guided you in making Oliver go one way or the other. Should Oliver steal the drug?
Why or why not? Does Oliver leave her wife die? Or does he steal the drug that would save her? What are stake here our two main human values: law and human life. Cleverly enough Kohlberg plays them one against the other forcing the reader to reveal not just his way of thinking, but also the values that guide his inner decision-making process.
We have just heard today a short riddle parable. Jesus asks one apparently obvious question to his audience, but in reality, it is an extremely challenging one and it looks very much like the sort of death and life dilemma that K. poses in his psychological stories. Where do we get that? Well, we may have to remind ourselves that a few verses before Jesus was directly questioned in his authority. The chief priests and the elders have just asked him what is the source of his authority? To which Jesus replies back by challenging their own authority in two different ways. Firstly, he asks them about John the baptist: “Was his baptism coming from heaven, or was it of human origin? Brilliant question. Fearing the crowd, they reply: “I don’t know”. Secondly he tells them the very short story of two sons we have heard today. This time they don’t seem to feel directly accused of something, because Jesus poses them a rhetorical riddle question. They don’t feel call into question and answer, but that’s exactly what Jesus is doing. Let’ me remind you the riddle we have just heard: a man has two sons and asks both to go and work in his vineyard. The first one says “no” and then goes. The second one says “yes” but did not go. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They obviously reply: “The first”, not understanding by that they get caught by the riddle. In this amazing scene, we see Jesus in action. He passes from being questioned in his authority to shaking the foundations of the Jewish leaders’ power and authority. His words are a downward blow that gets to the heart of the establishment, the status quo, and make it miserably collapse. Jesus’ words is revolutionary because they destabilise the system and proclaim the coming of a new one: the kingdom of God, an inclusive and compassionate community of faith. The Jewish leaders could not stand that, because their authority was based on a exclusive idea of the people of God. Imagine now, how they took the words of Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes were going to the kingdom of God ahead of them, the chosen ones! Not really well.
Jesus’ message is also a destabilizing one because it tells the leaders of Israel that even their interpretation of the Scripture is wrong. They misinterpreted the prophets and, because of that, led the people of God to ruin.
The prophet Ezekiel -in the first reading- is actually accusing the leaders of Israel to distort and falsify the word of God. Why? Because God wants them to be compassionate toward the sinner who repents from his sins. Ezekiel’s words are extremely ironic: “And you have said: The way of the Lord is not right”. In other words, he says: “When I do what you want me to do, I’m right, but if I try to be a compassionate God, you then question my Word and action?” What do they want? They want the people who commit a sin or crime, to be punished according to the law. And we will agree with that. But Ezekiel’s question is more sublet that what we think, and Jesus takes on board two aspects of the same problem. Firstly, the final judgment of any human action is eventually referred to God and not to any human tribunal or individual and personal judgement. Secondly, that justice is a universal but not always straightforward measure of our human actions. Very often, we face serious human and spiritual dilemmas. How many times in history, human laws clashed against fundamental human rights? (The Apartheid laws in South Africa are just one example among many other ones).
Is it worth giving the sinner a second chance to repent and be good? The gospel asks us today. It looks like a simple question, but so hard to reply in practice in our daily life. The gospel is here to remind us the need for a constant discernment. To our leaders we may to require to be promoters of humanization, to respect the law and to put themselves above the law. To ourselves, we may have to feel the need to learn to forgive and be inclusive. Both forgiving and being inclusive are linked to each other and feed one another. Jesus tells us that they we can always be more inclusive and forgiving that what we are.