Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
Proper 21 A - September 27,.2020
If he were here today, would he address us differently? Would he tell us monks and priests, “Truly I tell you, the payday lenders and the drug dealers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you?” This gives us a sense of how stinging was the rebuke he addressed to those who were deemed to live virtuous lives.
What Jesus wants them and us to hear and consider is a simple message. Our actions show our real intent. They speak more eloquently of our faithfulness than our statements, no matter how well worded and sincere they may be.
Our virtue and authority may be favorably assessed by ourselves and others. But are our actions expressing that virtue? Our perceived virtue and authority are irrelevant to how well we love God and neighbor. People’s and our own assessments of our virtue and authority do not put us above those most vilified by the self-righteous.
Shortly before the encounter we heard about in today’s gospel, Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph. Later, he proceeded to cleanse the temple. Those are two recent things the chief priests and the elders of the people object to.
Under what authority does Jesus allow himself to do these things, they want to know? More to the point, they are quite sure he does not have the authority to do these things and they want to expose him.
The authorities ask Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They are hoping that Jesus will incriminate himself by his answer.
They expect him to either say “Under my own authority” or “Under God’s authority.” Either of those answers would be deemed sacrilegious (though actually correct as we know from our point of view).
But Jesus sees through their machinations and knows better than to answer directly. Instead he meets the authorities’ challenge with a riposte.
He asks the chief priests and the elders a question that he knows they will find very difficult to answer in front of the crowd of onlookers. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
After discussions, the authorities find it impossible to answer the question without losing face. And as it is, they lose face anyway in admitting that they can’t even answer a straightforward question.
Jesus’ question has established that He has more authority than the chief priests and the elders. He has also established that John the Baptist was a mighty prophet whose authority the religious elite rebuffed.
It is an amazing demonstration of Jesus’ insight into people’s intents and motivations, his capacity to subvert the establishment, not to mention his rhetorical virtuosity.
But Jesus is not done with his demonstration of the religious authorities’ illegitimacy. Next he tells a parable that illustrates where they stand in relationship to God.
It is the parable of two sons who respond to their father and how their words and acts differ.
The first son sounds bad but does the right thing in the end. The second son sounds good at first but doesn’t do what he says. The first son ultimately did the will of his father. The second son sounded faithful but then did not act in accordance with his words. Which son did actually do the will of his father Jesus asks? The first one.
The first son ends up being more faithful to his father than the second one. This parable imparts that in the end, turning back to God, repenting, and doing God’s will is more important than sounding faithful without showing the fruits of faith.
The parable is an indictment of the religious authorities who say the right things but then don’t act according to what they say.
Jesus concludes by saying that the tax collectors and the prostitutes who repented and did what John the Baptist preached will precede the chief priests and the elders in the Kingdom of God.
But even after they witnessed the repentance of sinners, the authorities did not believe in John. And even after seeing all the signs that Jesus has done, neither do they believe in Him.
It is a shocking statement, tax collectors and prostitutes were deemed to be among the worst possible sinners there were. The religious authorities are utterly shamed by the end of this parable. No wonder they then conspire to get rid of this inconvenient Galilean prophet.
So where does this gospel passage leave us? Do we profess to live the Golden Rule and the Beatitudes in our lives? Do we talk a good talk about our religious obligations?
What about our actions? Are they aligned with our profession of faith? Do we try to dilute the strength of Jesus’ teachings or do we let their radicality shake us into radical living? Do we turn to Christ with our acts more than our words? What parts of our lives remain to be converted into Christ-following actions?
And how is all that playing out in our personal, communal and national lives? Who are the converted tax collectors and prostitutes we should emulate in today’s society? Let us think of those we look down on. Let us wonder how they may witness to God’s will more actually than we currently do.
Let’s be doers of Jesus’ teachings more than loudspeakers. As a saying attributed to St Francis goes: “Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.”