26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – SEPTEMBER 25, 2011 – ST. JOHN’S
“Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” I never think of this saying of Jesus in today’s Gospel without recalling a New Yorker cartoon by George Booth, the artist who has all those scraggly cats and dogs and people in his work. The cartoon showed a Protestant minister running for his life out the church door and down the sidewalk; he is being chased by an angry congregation, the men shouting and with raised fists, the women throwing their pocketbooks at him. You wonder what is going on and then you see the sign on which is written the theme of that day’s sermon. It reads: “Are we all prostitutes?” It is clear what the minister’s answer must have been. Whether the minister–or rather George Booth–knew it or not, the idea of the Church as a prostitute restored to virtue, and always in danger of relapsing, was a frequent theme in early and medieval Christian literature.
Originally, the parable of the two sons was meant to illustrate the necessity of doing as well as of saying: the one son says he won’t go out into the vineyard but changes his mind and does go; the other says, “Yes, lord,” but doesn’t go. We are reminded of another saying of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Then comes the saying: “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” I guess it’s fairly easy why Jesus referred to prostitutes to illustrate his point. He added tax collectors because their profession required them to be in regular contact with the occupying Roman authorities; perhaps we can compare them to the collaborators in occupied France during the Second World War.
These two disreputable groups, Jesus says, are in a better situation with regard to the kingdom than are the chief priests and elders. These latter saw no need to repent when John the Baptist came preaching repentance, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did–those people that the Jewish leaders regarded as nothing but sinners, consistently breaking the law–said No at first, but then when John came, they changed their minds and believed him.
I suppose if we were to look for the equivalent in today’s society in order to wake up the Church, we might say: “Drug-dealers and abortionists are entering the kingdom of God before”–well, before whom? I suppose we have to say, “before us,” us the church-goers. Drug-dealers and abortionists may say yes if they ever truly hear the good news of the forgiveness and reconciliation offered to them by God in Christ; but we’re the ones who say, “Lord, Lord” here in church, and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re like the son in the parable who says “Yes” but doesn’t go to work.
One brief word about today’s powerful second reading. After a beautiful exhortation to gentleness, compassion, and unity of heart and mind and after calling them “to the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul quotes from a very early Christian hymn, about the pre-existent one equal to God, who emptied himself, took on the form of a slave, humbled himself even to death, even to death on a cross, and for this was exalted by God and was given the name above all other names, the name of Lord, so that at that name every creature should bend the knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
A great German Lutheran scholar has noted that this hymn had probably been composed and sung by around the year 50. This is a mere twenty years after the death of Christ–twenty years were enough for the story of a wandering prophet’s execution on a shameful cross outside of Jerusalem to have become a story that was being sung far away from Palestine–the story that this same prophet was God himself emptying and humbling himself and now exalted and bearing God’s own name, “Lord.” The crucified one had been remembered; but not only remembered, he was being confessed to be Lord; and the community that remembered him and confessed him in faith had spread and was spreading.
And now it has spread to the point that across the centuries and across the seas, that community of memory and of faith includes us who are assembled here today. We remember that same one in the Gospel as we hear his words; we confess him in the creed that will follow this homily; we remember him in the breaking of the bread; and we confess him in the great Amen that concludes our prayer of thanksgiving. We remember what was remembered then; we confess what was confessed then; and by this same memory and faith we are the same community that gathered in Philippi 1950 years ago and sang this great hymn.
Now consider again what it means to say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord”. It is a confession of faith and of grateful memory, the memory and faith, celebrated in words and in mystery, that constitute and distinguish the Church, that are supposed to distinguish us here gathered. In this celebration we are brought back each week to the great good news that was sung in the hymn St. Paul quoted. But, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father, who is in heaven.” We are the sons in the parable: One of them says “No” to has father and yet goes to work; the other says “Yes, Lord,” but doesn’t go. When we leave this church after having said the Yes of our Amen, we are going out into the vineyard. And it is there that we will show which one of the sons we are.