The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What is your opinion?

Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time—A
Ezekiel 18:25-28
Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 21:28-32
In his new book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr states something very simply that is integral to the message of the Gospel and so obvious, but something many of us fail to grasp (and I count myself one in that number). This is what he says:
“Jesus is never upset at sinners; he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners!”
Well, duh! We all know that!
But I wonder if we really do. Do we really believe, on one hand, that if we have sinned but have a change of heart and genuinely seek reconciliation and a firm purpose of amendment, that we are truly forgiven? We are cut free—forever, even though odds are we will sin again, and God knows that we will.
Do we really believe, on the other hand (and more pertinent to our discussion here), that this very same generous, even unfair offer of mercy is extended to everyone around us? In other words, do we sometimes unfairly judge others, placing ourselves above them, and primarily consider their shortcomings without regard to our own? Are we among those who do not think ourselves sinners (though we clearly are)?
Today’s Gospel is a good companion piece to the passage we heard last week (Matthew 20:1-16a) of the workers in the vineyard. The message—even the setting, a vineyard—is much the same. Latecomers, sinners, the ones who initially refuse to do the will of God but who eventually have a change of heart, will enter the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, the early arrivals, those who consider themselves upstanding religious and good Christians who say they believe and promise to act as believers, but who do not actually do so, will find themselves outside the Kingdom of God.
“The last will be first, and the first will be last,” as Jesus said in last week’s Gospel, or as he says in today’s: “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
It is worth nothing that today’s Gospel passage comes shortly after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he knows he will be put to death. One of his first actions in Jerusalem is to reclaim his Father’s house, clearing out the temple area and declaring, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves.” This did not sit well with the religious leaders of Jerusalem, and they began questioning Jesus’ authority. In response, Jesus relates the parable from today’s Gospel.
What he is effectively saying is this: “I’m not interested in lip service and empty ritual for ritual’s sake. I am interested in true, deep conversion of heart—in both worship and daily lives that demonstrate your belief in me.” As Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, says in his reflection on this week’s readings at, “The parable is a lesson for those who claim to be Christian, but do not worship as Christians or live the Christian life; compared to those who come to know Christ later but never claimed to be righteous.”
This parable also echoes the famous story in Luke’s Gospel (18:9-14) of the Pharisee (i.e., upstanding religious) and the tax collector (i.e., the repentant sinner) who both went into the temple area to pray. The Pharisee spoke this prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, and adulterous – or even like this tax collector…” Meanwhile, the tax collector simply bowed his head in humility and said, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The latter, Jesus said, went home justified, not the former.
If we are completely honest with ourselves, there is a little of both the Pharisee and the tax collector in each of us. If we recognize that and assume the humble posture of the tax collector, then we are like the first son in today’s Gospel—the one who at first refuses to do his father’s will, but then changes his mind, and therefore is allowed entrance into the Kingdom of God. However, if we assume the posture of an “upstanding” Christian, paying mere lip service to all that involves like the second son in today’s Gospel, and like the Pharisee “thanking God that we are not like the rest of humanity,” then we are in for a very harsh surprise.
I am reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which drives home this point in humorous but seriously ironic fashion. In this excerpt, demon-trainer Screwtape is advising demon-in-training Wormwood about how to handle the human “patient” who has been entrusted to him (the "Enemy" refers to God):
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. … It is quite invisible to these humans. … When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew.

It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. … Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of "Christians" in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. ... What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk.

At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in the Enemy's ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these "smug," commonplace neighbors at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Satan, you see, doesn’t necessarily want Christians to become atheists. He wants us to become Pharisees. That is why we must, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, strive daily to have “the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped …”

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