The parable given us for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time— stings. It is very brief, to the point and, ouch! It stings because it is aimed at most of us, “the insiders.” I mean, it is directed at those who have available all the tools, the means, and the information on how to act in a manner always pleasing to God. It was, originally, aimed at the chief priests and elders of the people. (Matthew 21:28)
However, nowadays, who are the targets of Jesus’ warning? They are the insiders, those who, from bishops to priests, deacons, and pious, committed laity are with their hands so deep in things religious that they fail to see the urgency and the need to stop, at times, and return to the Lord from whom, most likely, they have drifted away and fallen into lukewarmness.
The results of not stopping, now and then, to return contrite to the Lord changes their Christian calling into either a pious formality rather than a relationship based on love and trust OR into repeated, well-honed efforts to fool others with hollow appearance and little substance.
It is worth pointing out that Jesus doesn’t warn those whom we deem should be his obvious targets: tax collectors, prostitutes, big sinners, criminals, heretics, immoral, unethical people. He doesn’t even lash out against abortionists, agnostics, and atheists. The reason is disarmingly simple: because those big sinners are more reachable by his grace and cannot hide their evil conduct.
Instead, he exposes what is hidden carefully behind a façade of good behavior, religious etiquette, and impeccable performance. He goes after those who, easily, find flaws with others and are confident that they have covered their pretense so well that they can look down on people whose sinful conduct is out in the open.
Being a priest, being an insider myself, I ought to take this warning very, very seriously, and focus on what lies behind my façade of respectability, approvable performance, and good reputation. In other words, I must ask myself: “do I practice what I preach? Or, rather, do I redirect the attention of the congregation away from my pretense, my lukewarmness, my shallow love for God, my empty appearance and to obvious targets?
This parable stings! Those, who know well the inner workings and the trappings of religion; those, who relish exterior, pious performance without, on a regular basis, probing the recesses of their heart; who, at times, do not bother to struggle with the challenges of the Gospel and the demands of genuine faith, should ask themselves: “Should I consider the possibility of seeing the obvious targets, those whom I judge so readily, enter the Kingdom of God before me?”
After more than 51 years of pastoral ministry, I have reached the inescapable conclusion that God is telling us something which must force us into an incredibly long pause. The Lord is forcing us to take a second look at the Gospel and notice how only those who probed their hearts rushed eagerly to him to be forgiven and healed.
The others, those who thought of themselves as righteous and healthy, thanks to their presumption, complacency and lukewarmness, kept themselves at a safe distance. De facto, they refused to convert, to return to their God because they thought they were already so very close to him because they were quite familiar with things religious.
Truth be told, it is so much better, so very honest, so liberating to be like the first son: rebellious, disobedient, but with a sensitive heart, a heart open to the Father’s entreaties. On the other hand, it is so deadly to be like the second, phony, presumptuous son, and have closed our heart to the Father by already deciding to serve him only when it is convenient and agreeable.
Heartfelt humility will lead us to carry out our Father’s wishes, although after an improper delay. The Father’s unspoken invitation is to change us into “his third son,” the Son who came to earth saying: “A body you have prepared for me, behold, here I come to do your will.” (Hebrews 10:5)
I hope that we are all soundly stung by this penetrating parable and be willing to assess how far we might have drifted from the Lord and become lukewarm in our love for him.
We beg for the gift of true humility, like the humility of Jesus Christ, the Third Son, to be always ready to obey him, to be free of all presumption placing ourselves among those who truly need full access to his mercy so that we, too, may attain entrance into the Kingdom of heaven.