Autumn is a good time to think ahead to the autumn of our lives. When we are young, we don’t think too much about the end of life; we have too much to live for. But even for the young, it is very worthwhile to know about the autumn of life.
In autumn the days become shorter, the nights become longer, the leaves become their most beautiful just before they fall to the ground.
So also for a human being. In the autumn we become more aware of the shortness of life, and if we have aged in wisdom and grace, we become our most beautiful before we die.
That aging in wisdom and grace is our task all along the way through the years of our lives. Our final beauty is determined by our life of faith. Or, another way to say that is: our eternal salvation is determined by our freewill response to the Lord’s grace as He portions it out to each according to His purpose. Today’s Scriptures give us some powerful medicine to reflect upon the end of our days.
Our Gospel selection about the two sons is very instructive and thought provoking. We see one son who gives lip service to his father yet never carries out the will of the father. The other son seems to be rather rebellious, flatly denying any willingness to do the father’s will. However, as the day wears on, he changes his mind and does the exact thing his father had asked him to do earlier on the day.
This second son can be a symbol of the rebellious child of God who turns his or her back on God the Father and goes off to do his own thing, even to the point of having nothing at all to do the will of God. Perhaps even, sin is added to sin, so that this one loses his way, so much so, that he gets to a point where he changes his mind, opens up to the grace of God and turns his life around.
The beauty of Jesus’ telling the story of this son is that there is always hope for someone who has been baptized, that God’s grace will turn him around.
On the other hand, there is the other son, the one who gives lip service, thereby avoiding an explicit fight with his father, but he never does the will of his father.
This first son can be a symbol of the baptized person whose actions are totally inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. The right words may come forth from his lips, but his heart is far from doing the will of God. This kind of person, and there are many of them, causes the kind of problem that Mahatma Ghandi experienced. When asked why he never became a Christian, he said:
"I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time."
So, we must be more forthright about the role of evil, the role of blatant or subtle wickedness. Seeing evil clearly may lead us to undergo a conversion of heart and make God, and God's will, our top priority. Hear this from Pope Benedict in his encounter this week with Lutherans near the spot where the Protestant Reformation was born:
presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgment at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question [of how we stand with God] no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings?
“Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbor . . . were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, [evil] could not be so powerful.”
So, whether we are young or old, we really do need to ask the question: where do I stand before God?