In 1998, the Benedictine Abbey of St. John in Minnesota commissioned a hand-written and illuminated bible, one of the only ones to be produced in the 500 years since the invention of the printing press made them obsolete. It was completed in 2011. It is a beautiful bible, and I’d encourage anyone who loves art to look at it on-line. As anyone who has ever copied something down out of a book knows, it is easy to make a transcription error, and sure enough some were found in the course of the project. But instead of just recopying the page, the project director dealt with one case of a sentence fragment that was inadvertently left out in a curious manner. He directed that the missing line be put into the margin area at the bottom of the page, with a line going up the side to the place where the missing line should have gone. It included an illustration of a bird as part of the line that seemed to fly the missing words to their rightful place [https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/stjohnsbible/stjohns-exhibit.html#obj16]. When asked why this was done, Father George Smiga reported that the director said that the whole purpose of having a hand-written bible was to have a “human touch,” and that having a very visible corrected mistake does not detract from that objective but instead adds another level of humanity to it [https://buildingontheword.org/homilies/cycle-a/a-26th-sunday-in-ordinary-time/].
This idea is not unique to this project. Eastern Church art has maintained a principle that all icons should have a flaw to them, such as a hand that is misshapen or an eye that is out of proportion to the other. The principle is that only God is perfect. Medieval churches in Europe were made with deliberate flaws, although minor, and many cultures embrace the idea that a certain non-uniformity is actually desirable. It is the modern era of machined production, airbrushing, and photo-shopping that we come to the idea that something, to be of value, must be flawless.
The Church knows better. The fall in the garden, original sin, God’s use of flawed people throughout the Old and New Testaments, or, most important of all, our need of Christ’s redemption – all point to our flawed nature. In fact, the Gospel today actually makes a clear declaration: those that feel that they are not flawed, or at least not very flawed, are actually in the greatest danger of grave sin. Believing themselves to be living lives already worthy of God and therefore ignoring John the Baptist’s call to repentance, it was the chief priests and the elders who were in peril, not the ones who acknowledged their sins and were repentant.
In the parable, which son was correct in his behavior? Which son is without flaw in honoring his father? Of course, the correct answer is neither: the one son dishonored his father by not doing the tasks that he promised, and the other son dishonored his father by telling him that he would not obey. Both were therefore flawed. But the point of the parable is to determine which was the least flawed, and the answer was the one that repented of his previous conduct and then did what was right by his father.
One of the blessings that Christ gives us is the sacrament of reconciliation. It is not a coincidence that in the Gospel just three weeks ago, right after He discussed the steps necessary for reconciling with one’s brother, Jesus then immediately talked about binding and loosing sins. He understands that we will have disagreements with our brothers and sisters, our parents and children, our friends and even strangers, and therefore wants us to reconcile with them. Then He wants us to reconcile our conduct with God, since failing to love our neighbor is failing to love God. And if we lose our humility, and if we fail to do an adequate job of examining our conscience for ways our conduct came up short, we are in danger, like the chief priests and elders, of failing to love God. This, then, is the failure of the second brother, one which the first brother does not make after his initial failure.
It is never too late to recover from our mistakes. Ezekiel promises us that in the first reading: “since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ez 18:28). Just last week, Christ, with the parable of the laborers, told us that it is never too late, and that even those who come at the late hour will receive the full day’s wages. But the first step is to acknowledge that we are sinners, and for many of us the sin of pride is our largest failing. I know it is for me. Arrogance is either a sin in and of itself or it leads us to fail to recognize our other sins or to minimize them. The parable today tells us that we should submit to God in both word and deed, and this takes a suppression of pride, saying no to what we want to do and saying yes, and then doing, the will of our heavenly Father. Saint Paul echoes this in the second reading: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves…” (Phil 2:3). And as the lives of the saints show us, submission to God leads to an abundant joy and not, as those who wallow in pride would believe, unhappiness at the idea of not getting what we want whenever we want it.
This week our parish intention is for our armed forces. Those currently serving, and those of you who have served, know what it means to obey a higher authority, and be willing to do so without reservation. Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen and women have a higher calling, a sense of purpose, and a willingness to forego their own desires for the goals of the larger unit. Many military women and men are active in the church after retirement, as they carry this sense of a higher purpose from their military life to their civilian life. This week we pray for those currently serving as they put themselves in harm’s way for their higher purpose, that is the defense of our country. We should pray for ourselves that we too can follow their example and develop a higher purpose in carrying out the teachings of Christ.
As we continue with our liturgy with the Eucharist, we will come up and, after the Eucharistic Minister says, “The Body of Christ,” we are supposed to say “Amen.” Amen is from the Hebrew and indicates a strong agreement with what has been said, a “yes” but a strong “yes.” So what will your “yes” mean today? Are you like the second brother and your “yes” means “maybe, if I get around to it,” or does it mean “God's will be done, despite any obstacles.” If we fail, and being human we will fail, let our “yes” mean that we will own up to it, seek reconciliation with God and neighbor, and try again.