Brief synopsis of the readings: In Ezekiel we hear that the Lord is not unjust. When a just man “renounces his integrity to commit sin” he will die because of his evil. But when a sinner renounces sin he will surely live and not die. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus speaks to the chief priests and elders of the people: he tells them a parable of a man with two sons. The man approached his first son and asked him to work in the vineyard. His son declined to go but later thought the better of it and worked in the vineyard. The father then went to the second son with the same request. The second son agreed, but changed his mind and did not go. Jesus then asked: “Which of the two did the father’s will?” They answered that the first son did the father’s will. Jesus then told them that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter heaven before them. He said that when John the Baptist proclaimed the kingdom to them, they didn’t listen but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.
When I was in high school I had a classmate, Chris, who wore a campaign type button that said: “Get Smart, Get Saved.” He was a good guy and I enjoyed our friendship, but he spent most of his time evangelizing, getting his classmates to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Most of us were already Christian and declined his offer to attend his Bible study meetings. But one week I noticed that several other of my classmates were also wearing the “Get Smart, Get Saved” buttons.
But these classmates were different. They were those we called “stoners” and we recognized them as drug users and troublemakers. Truthfully, most of us wrote these people off as people who would never amount to anything. While we were looking at colleges we assumed they would end up either as drug dealers or (at best) clerks at convenience stores. I say this, more than 40 years later, with profound humility and embarrassment.
My group (and yes, we were nerds) generally identified as Christians but we were also the people who followed the rules and thought we were good with God. But we also falsely believed that because we were smart and obedient we were better with God than the stoners were.
Please understand, we were good with God, but so were they. Our sin wasn’t thinking that we had it made, it was thinking that they didn’t. When I place this experience on top of today’s Gospel, it’s frighteningly clear. Jesus wasn’t speaking to a random group, he was speaking with the chief priests and elders of the people. He was speaking to a group where he should have been deferential and respectful.
Jesus lived at a time with strict hierarchies of both wealth and importance. Great emphasis was placed on education and that’s fine as far as it goes. But not everyone had access to education. The public school system, that we take for granted, simply didn’t exist them and if you had the bad fortune of being born to a poor family you started working at a young age. School was for other people.
And the chief priests and elders were those other people. Because of their status and education they thought themselves as closer to God, as more deserving of God’s love and support. They were (they thought) certainly closer to God than those wretched tax collectors and prostitutes.
I think it’s fair to say that tax collectors and prostitutes never freely chose their profession. They knew they were going to be held in contempt. They knew that the chief priests and elders, and in fact nearly everyone else, would look down their nose at them. They had hard lives and were made all the worse by being blamed for their misfortune.
Interestingly enough Jesus didn’t say that these tax collectors and prostitutes were the only ones saved. No, he told the chief priests and elders something far more insulting: those wretched people were getting there first.
There are many perks to being well education and wealthy, and among them is this: you don’t wait in line. You get exclusive access and extra perks. My wife and I are members of the San Diego Zoo. We became members because it was cheaper to pay annually than to pay each time we visited. But there are nine levels of membership and as each level gets more expensive it comes with more opportunities. Early openings, exclusive receptions, etc.
Please understand that I’m not criticizing the zoo and we see our membership as an investment in a cause we believe in. But even so there is something nice about being escorted to a separate entrance or a private party.
Earlier I spoke about how the people of Jesus’ day developed hierarchies and attached value to some at the expense of others. So do we. If we look at compensation we value stockbrokers over teachers and we value professional athletes over nearly everyone.
But God doesn’t respect the hierarchies that we concoct. It’s not that God loved the tax collects and prostitutes more than the chief priests and elders. But it’s also not true that God loves everyone the same. We are not the same.
God loves us infinitely and passionately, but God also loves us individually. He loved the desire of the chief priests and elders to become more and more educated, the fact that they studied long hours to learn about and love God. And God loved that the tax collectors and prostitutes knowing they had hard lives and did terrible things to keep from starving.
Finally, as for me and my group in high school? God loved the fact that my group studied hard and worked to make a life for ourselves. But God also looked with love on the people my group looked down on. I know virtually nothing of their lives but I suspect their lives were hard. Poverty in my town wasn’t rampant but it existed and I suspect it existed among that group. I’m certain that at least some of them came from homes where drug use and addiction were the driving forces. Or if not that, there was some other pain that they self medicated. I don’t know where they are now, but I pray they are well.
And as for Chris, I think God loved Chris because Chris’ love for God drove much of his life, even if he did drive many of us crazy.