Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Ez 18: 25-28
Ps 25: 4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
Phil 2: 1-11 or Phil 2: 1-5
Mt 21: 28-32
Some years back, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, Ed, about the joys and struggles of fatherhood. He has seven children, and thus a great deal of experience and wisdom. So when I have questions about raising children–or if I am simply looking for a homily idea–Ed is often a good source. This time, I asked about how he and his wife handled correcting and punishing the kids. He told me that occasionally when he would come home from work, his wife, Mary, would want him to discipline one or more of the children. He confessed that motivation could be a problem: “Sometimes,” he said, “I just couldn’t get myself angry enough to do it.”
My father did not have that problem. Long before there were actual drones, my father was a “discipline drone.” My mother just had to aim him in the right direction. He operated with “point-and-strike” software. He didn’t need to know what we had done. He conducted no investigations into extenuating circumstances, didn’t quiz us on our motives, expressed no interest in our eventual reform.
Today’s parable reflects a comparable disinterest in motive. We are not told why either son changes his mind. Does the first son say no, but then, when he sees servants at work in the fields, does he feel ashamed? Does the second son say yes, but then run into friends on their way to a party? We are not told, and it does not matter. What matters is obedience.
Did the tax collectors and prostitutes believe John the Baptist out of fear of the coming wrath? Did his proclamation that every tree that does not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire strike terror into their hearts? Did they believe because John played no favorites, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees and even King Herod himself to repentance? Did those who turned away do so because of John’s poor appearance, or because they believed themselves to be righteous already, or because they didn’t want to be seen with someone who associated with tax collectors and prostitutes?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is obedience.
People can get themselves tied into knots about motivation. “Am I doing this for good reasons? Are my motives pure? Is my heart in the right place?” And motivation certainly is important; but more often than not, it is obedience that matters.
If the fireman who leads me out of a burning building does so primarily because he loves people, that’s great. But if does his work primarily because he needs a paycheck, that is also perfectly fine with me.
So too with doctors, chefs, bus drivers, architects, repairmen, software developers, congressmen, and dozens of others: If they are good at their job, and if they do it responsibly, I don’t much care what their motivation is.
God is a lot like that. Nothing is hidden from Him. He knows our hearts better than we do. And He wants us to be motivated by love of Him. But He will gladly accept mixed motives, as long as we are doing what he wants. In this respect, God is much like a father who wants the chores taken care of. He would rejoice if his son mowed the lawn out of gratitude to his parents, or out of pride in his home. But if his son works under protest, grumbling that his precious Saturday is being wasted, that’s okay, as long as the job gets done.
What does God say to us today through the prophet Isaiah?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed,
if he does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
There is no talk of motivations here. It doesn’t matter if the virtuous man has good intentions: if he becomes a sinner, he dies. And if the wicked man turns his life around, God does not insist that his motive be “pure.” All that matter is that “he does what is right and just.”
St. Paul calls us to imitate Christ: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus...” But when Paul explains what he means by this attitude, he doesn’t talk about interior motivation. He talks about action: Jesus Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Paul’s instruction is that we must imitate the obedience of Christ.
Of course, Christ’s motive is love: the love of God for a weak, fallen world. That mysterious love is the source of our salvation. But Jesus will accept all of our mixed motives, however ill-formed, however much they are born of our fear of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, as long as they lead to obedience to his command to love. The only motivation Jesus rejects is the desire to appear righteous and reap the reward of public praise. He warns us: Do not blow a trumpet when you give to the poor, do not put on a pained expression when you fast, do not pray more elaborately when people are watching.
But if, sometimes, we come to Mass mostly out of duty; and if, sometimes, we visit the sick reluctantly; and if, sometimes, it is fear of God’s punishment that keeps us mindful of the poor, that turns us away from pornography and contraception, that pushes us to reconcile with parents, spouses, or children...well, that is acceptable to the Lord, who knows how hard it is for us to do the right thing, let alone for the best of reasons. And so Christ is merciful. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). We can say “No!” a dozen times a day. But if we do what Christ asks, if we get the job done, if we act like Christ long enough, then we will receive the contrite spirit and humble heart that are, so often, the reward of our good works, rather than their motivation.