“Yeh-Nah.” “Nah-Yeh.” I get confused every time I hear this. Is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’; is it ‘I agree’ or ‘I don’t agree’? Both seem possible in a ‘yeh-nah’ world.

We might think this is simply a bit of modern-day slang in need of understanding. But actually, it quite neatly sums up an ancient phenomenon of our humanity. We could say, human beings are the ‘yeh-nah’ species of God’s creation, His uniquely ambiguous beings. No other creature is able to commit to one thing and do the opposite.

Jesus acknowledges this in his parable, which we’ve just heard. The two sons are both practitioners of the ‘yeh-nah’ way: the saying of one thing, but the doing of the other. As a bit of social analysis, Jesus is pointing out nothing particularly remarkable. We probably all want to think that we are fairly consistent in what we say and do, but it would be a bit more honest to admit we can all be somewhat inconsistent in our words and ways.

What Jesus skilfully does, however, is to point out that there can be a moral distinction between what we think or say, and what we actually do. By what he says, the first son appears to be the less upright of the two, but by what he does he emerges as the more upright. Jesus’ point is that it is by our actions, not our words, that the measure of our goodness is to be judged.

There is a common-enough expression you might be familiar with: “Ideas change the world.” But in fact, this is not true; it is actions that change the world. We can have the best of intentions, the noblest of words, the cleverest of thoughts, but none of this matters until and only if they are acted upon. The second son had the words, but it was the first son who did the deed. When writing to the early Church in Jerusalem, St James put this distinction brilliantly in his typically blunt manner: we are to be do-ers of the Word.

Jesus makes this distinction in the context of honouring the tax collectors and prostitutes who he tended to befriend. These sinners – for indeed they had been – were being held up to the chief priests and elders – the supposedly righteous – as the true children of God, and heirs to the Kingdom. This was because Jesus saw in them first sons and daughters. We can see here the difference between sinners, who choose to walk a right path having seen their wrong thinking, and the corrupt, who do wrong but continue to think they are in the right. (The ‘treatment’ for sin is mercy; the ‘treatment’ for corruption is justice.)

By our deeds will we be known and measured, and not by our words. This is a really important lesson to learn and follow in our world where words and images dominate our social interactions. We flick through our social feeds, absorbing ideas and opinions that are being manipulated behind the scenes by complex algorithms. We are fed with what we want to see and hear. But are we then sensitive to what people do? Are we attentive to what we ourselves do?

Jesus draws attention to the doing of the first son because it shows up the goodness of someone who has had a conversion of mind and heart. The prostitutes and tax collectors ‘got it’, as we say. They saw the Kingdom of God in action – in John the Baptist and in Jesus – and wanted a part of it. They became do-ers of the Word. What a great thing it would be if people said the same of us.

Image: Parable of the two sons by A.N. Mironov