26th Sunday (A) - October 1, 2023

Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Psalm 25;
Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Jesus’ authority has been challenged in the temple area by the chief priests and elders. They have confronted him on his preachings and actions. He responds with three parables about judgment, today’s is the first.

Jesus had just confronted the spiritual leaders on their rejection of John the Baptist (Matthew 21:23-25). Why had they not accepted God at work in John when even tax collectors and sinners did? The latter repented of their sins and accepted John’s penitential baptism. Those who had lived a life of "No" to God, had turned their lives around with a "Yes." The "outsiders" had been welcomed by God. Couldn’t the religious hierarchy recognize and rejoice over God’s mercy and accept Jesus’ healing message?

Jesus makes his point, as he frequently does, in a parable; this one about two sons. The sinners and tax collectors would have identified with the second son. Like him they had regretted their rejection of God by their many "No’s". After hearing Jesus’ preaching, they said "Yes" and changed the direction of their lives. The father does not cast out the first son immediately for his disobedience. Instead he was given time to change and he did. The parable shows that those who initially reject God are offered a similar time of grace.

Sinners who had said "No" to God recognized and welcomed the mercy in both John and Jesus’ messages. Haven’t you known people who, earlier in their lives, had rejected God, but later turned their lives around and accepted the gospel? Perhaps a crisis brought them to their knees. Or, they became aware of the emptiness in their lives and turned to someone who helped them make new choices. Sometimes people in difficult straits will read a biography of someone like Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks etc., people whose heroic lives were strengthened and guided by their faith. Such inspiring stories can stir change in a person’s life from a "No" to a "Yes" to God.

The chief priests and elders whom Jesus addressed had assumed their righteousness and thought they had earned a privileged place in God’s realm. They assumed God had closed and sealed the door on the sinful tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus came with a message of grace and revealed God’s "open door policy." Jesus was that open door, welcoming the former "No’s" into God’s merciful embrace.

We church folk need to check ourselves for a self righteousness similar to the established religious of Jesus’ day. How do we judge friends and family who have stopped going to church, or who have adopted a lifestyle contrary to ours? We have to avoid the rush to judgment Jesus found in the chief priests and elders. We in the pews must avoid their self-righteousness, which overlooks the need we all have for God’s graceful embrace in everything we do, think and say. (In the April, 2023 edition of America Magazine, Cardinal Robert McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, calls for a more inclusive and welcoming church. That sounds like Jesus’ parabolic message to us today.).

The religious leaders were not sincere searchers, not open to Jesus’ inclusive message. They wanted things to stay just as they were, with them at the top holding privilege and rank. It’s a danger for all of us in church leadership. Jesus wouldn’t have it: wouldn’t accept their closed minds. The God he came to proclaim had opened the door they wanted shut. They wanted control over those they judged unfit to enter. They surely felt insulted when Jesus told them, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you."

Notice the present tense. "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you." It is already happening! Where? When? How? Those who are accepting Jesus’ message and changing their lives to follow him are entering the Kingdom now! What a reversal of many people’s standards for religious behavior; sinners are welcomed into Jesus’ kingdom, while the upright and self-assured stand outside in confusion. Shall we join the converted tax collectors and prostitutes, confess our sins and again say "Yes" to Christ and the way of life he has shown us?

Are we like the chief priests and elders in other ways? We know the end of the gospel story. We believe Jesus is the Son of God. They didn’t know what we do. To them Jesus was upsetting the balance they tried to maintain with the Romans. They also saw him watering down, or even contradicting, the teachings they thought united the Jews as a believing community.

But, if we were in their shoes would we have acted differently? Do we resist change and want to keep things as they are? It is not about just wanting to maintain religious practices. We have to ask ourselves if are resisting personal changes by being closed to the word God is sending us through: the teachings of the Gospels, our church’s guidelines and those who know us well enough to point out our blind spots? Have we been saying "No" to those voices and now need to say "Yes?" Are we listening to God’s invitation to us today?

We also ask for forgiveness for those we have disappointed with our empty or half-hearted "Yes’s." They put trust in us, perhaps at their most vulnerable times, and we did not follow through and were not there when we promised we would be.

What I find interesting in today’s parable is that there is no mention in it of how things turned out. How hard of a worker was the first son when he finally got to the vineyard to work? Did he meet his quota; do what was expected of him? There are no standards of measurements laid out for us in this story. The emphasis is just on someone who changed his mind; who in the end, responded to an invitation. Maybe that is what is pleasing to God, our desire to serve; our attempts to respond, as we leave plenty of room for God to step in and fill in the gaps. The big ones and the small ones.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: