Entering the Kingdom of Heaven
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year. Ez 18:25-28; Ps 125:4-9; Phl 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32
In today's Gospel Jesus gives a solemn warning to the chief priests and scribes, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” Since we are familiar with the themes of Gospel, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate just how surprising these words are. But I think we need to be shocked, at least a little, in order to grasp the lesson that Jesus is teaching us. To appreciate this lesson, I must try to explain at least a little of the background.
The world in which Jesus is preaching has a single military superpower, the former Roman Republic that has become an empire. The culture of this empire is rapidly becoming morally debased. Sexual immorality of all kinds has become widespread, and even officially sanctioned by certain pagan practices. The historian Tacitus describes the mob in Rome at the time of Nero with the following words, “Never did a more filthy rabble add a worse licentiousness to our long corrupted morals. Even, with virtuous training, purity is not easily upheld; far less amid rivalries in vice could modesty, or propriety or any trace of good manners be preserved.” (Annals, XIV, 15) The main problem Tacitus identified was not mere personal sin, but the way in which civic leaders and opinion formers increasingly promoted immorality, rather like our media today. The consequences for the former Roman Republic were a declining birthrate, widespread abortion, infanticide, and massive financial waste - some of which are also problems, unfortunately, in today's American Republic and perhaps even more so in the declining countries of Western Europe. As Christians we should, I think, also take warning from the other actions of this society that was so similar, in many ways, to our own. As well as being brazenly immoral, we are told that Nero's Rome singled out the early followers of Christ for persecution, incidentally the first mention of Christ by a pagan historian. St. Peter was crucified, St. Paul was beheaded and Tacitus informs us that Christians were publicly burned in the Roman circus like flaming torches. Even Tacitus, who despised the Christians, was revolted by the cruelties inflicted on them, seeing the world descend into the abyss, like a great cataract pouring down into darkness.
Amid the chaos of the first century, the Jewish people, led by their chief priests and elders, were something of a shining exception to the general moral decay. Many of them upheld very high standards of moral, religious and charitable behavior. The Pharisees, in particular, were unusually good people by any conventional human measure. They strove to make every aspect of their lives holy, paying strict attention to every detail. So the contrast between pious Jews and the tax collectors and prostitutes could not be greater. Despite being made in the image of God, Roman tax collectors and prostitutes sold themselves for money, a terrible debasement of a human person. Prostitution also lowered public morals, and tax collectors provided the money to keep the whole corrupt system going. Why on earth, then, does Jesus give this warning to the chief priests and scribes, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you?”
Clearly Jesus is not condoning evil, but warning us about the nature of true virtue. First, with the story of the two sons, he gives us the good news that no-one in this world, no matter what sins he or she has committed, is incapable of repenting and entering heaven. The son who starts out refusing God, but later repents and goes to work in his Father's vineyard, is the one who ends up doing his Father's will. The Church, symbolized by the vineyard in this parable, could be described as a hospital for sinners, which is why we have Confession; we do not go to a hospital because we are well, but because we recognize that we are sick and in need of help. Second, Jesus is warning us about more subtle vices than avarice, greed and lust. Those who sin in these ways tend at least to have a sense of wretchedness and emptiness, even if the world is telling them to be proud of their sins. They are more likely to seek help; this is why some of these sinners believed John the Baptist and then Jesus himself. By contrast, the danger for the chief priests and scribes is the vice of pride. Pride is vice, not of greatness, but of making oneself the cause of one's own greatness and despising all others. This is the original sin, the sin of Lucifer, the ‘light bearer’, who sought to make himself like God.
What, then, are the lessons for us? Jesus shows us the pattern of true virtue in the Second Reading. He who is God, who does not need to make himself like God, empties himself and becomes like a slave, dying on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalts him and makes him Lord. Following the same pattern, we cannot perfect ourselves and raise ourselves to heaven. We can, however, confess our sins and receive God's grace and forgiveness. It is not virtue that leads to prayer, but prayer that leads to virtue.
Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 28th September 2008
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.