This Sunday: Good Intentions Mean Nothing to God

Today’s Gospel (the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A) is directed at those of us who consider ourselves religious.

Jesus tells the story of the man who had two sons — one said he would work in the vineyard but didn’t; the other said he wouldn’t but did. Who did the father’s will?

It’s the second, of course, but the story speaks to a common phenomenon.

Often, we Catholics spend a great deal of time learning to say all the right things. We know the “right” answer to every theological, ecclesial and political question. We enjoy reading all the right things, and when called upon, we say the right things. But when it comes to actually doing the things we’re supposed to — from mundane household drudgery to acts of charity small and large — we aren’t nearly so reliable.

We tell God we will be there for him, but he never somehow never sees us sweating in the vineyard.

That’s dangerous. In Blessed John Henry Newman’s Plain and Parochial Sermons the then-Anglican pastor drives home this lesson in sermon after sermon: He warns about “Profession without Practice” and says, in “Knowledge of God’s Will Without Obedience”:

“Go before God’s judgment-seat, and there plead that you know the Truth and have not done it. … How will it there be taken? ‘Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee,’ says our Judge Himself, and who shall reverse His judgment?”

Aristotle pointed out that we are what we choose to do. It is an obvious thing, but we often forget it: We too easily fall into the trap of considering our actions separate from our identity.

God knows it even if we don’t: There are not two of each of us. There is not a me that commits a sin and rejects his love and another me that is really a great guy who means well and is just “experimenting” with evil, not giving it his heart.


The father in Jesus’ story doesn’t give the first son the benefit of the doubt because he is so positive and loving and full of good intentions, and he doesn’t judge the second son sourly because he was so negative and quick to rebel. He isn’t concerned about the self-conception or professed love of the sons at all.

He only cares about what they actually do.

The son who did the right thing is rewarded. The one who didn’t isn’t. End of story.

Ultimately, that will be how God judges us — not on what we meant to do, but on what we did.

Christ told the hearers in his day that “tax collectors and prostitutes” were entering the Kingdom of God before them. These are people who are too broken to know all the right things to say. They did know was that they have to actually change their lives and do what Christ wants.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.