Jesus teaches about hypocrisy in our gospel today: the saying of one thing and doing of another, but then goes beyond that and talks about a more welcome form of human inconsistency: the redemption of the wicked through their turning to righteousness.
In our pop culture, we have the villain Darth Vader at the very last sacrificing himself to overthrow the evil empire he had long served. I know that’s the movies, but it captures the idea well. That is the arc of his story throughout the celebrated popcorn epic of Star Wars.
And if you’ve seen that film, you accept it, the idea that a bad person can do something redemptive even at the very end of their lives. It’s the story of A Christmas Carol, and the famous Dickens character, Ebenezer Scrooge who squanders decades as a miserable skinflint but finds joy at last in generosity.
It’s a wisdom that long predates the ministry of Jesus. Ezekiel in the first reading says,
“When the righteous person turns from righteousness and commits iniquity, they shall die for it… when the wicked person turns from wickedness and does what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.”
So, why does Jesus feel he needs to address this? It’s pretty obvious wisdom, isn’t it?
Well not always.
In the gospel he is accusing the chief priests and the elders of the people of failing to do what God has asked of them; and of looking down their noses at the common people, especially those who have publicly sinned, tax collectors who collaborate with the Romans, and prostitutes who sell their bodies in the streets. These spiritual and political leaders have created a class system, or perhaps a caste system, with different grades of righteousness, and placed themselves at the top.
However, what Jesus is really condemning is that they stopped shepherding the people in preference for defending the status quo. They’ve given up the people God gave them to care for in favour of the more worldly goal of institutional survival.
To look at it sympathetically, from their point of view, why shouldn’t they be proud of their accomplishment, even if the results aren’t entirely satisfactory?
Remember that Judea for most of the previous five centuries had been occupied by foreign powers, intent on absorbing the Jews, converting them back into pagans. More recently, under the Maccabean kings, then Herod, then the sons of Herod, the Jews have managed a measure of autonomy even as they find themselves again part of a greater empire, this time of the Romans.
These elders can point to the fact that their families through the generations of real sacrifice have accomplished quite a bit in preserving Israel even if only as a shadow of its former self. They can point to the fact that the Temple, destroyed six centuries before has been rebuilt, albeit by Herod (not the most commendable ruler of the ancient world). The burnt sacrifices are being made, the law of Moses is studied, synagogues have sprouted up throughout the Holy Land, and even beyond, wherever a Jewish community exists, and rabbis sent to lead them.
By their measure, they think they are doing pretty well, all things considered. But from Jesus’ perspective, they’re not doing at all well, because while they’ve kept the institutional structure running, even done some innovative expanding of it, they’ve let the faith itself wither to the point of spiritual death which is the death of the people whom they were called to shepherd.
And we know from the study of history, that first century Judaism was fractured; there were many groups unhappy with the chief priests and the elders for settling on mere survival of the institutions of the faith while abandoning the people to sin.
Today we must ask ourselves as a Church, and as individuals, when assessing our faithfulness to what God has given us to do, are we doing as He has asked, or doing what we prefer? And by prefer, I am not saying what has been done has been “easy.” Indeed, some very hard work has gone into the Church in the last fifty years, and for all the battering she’s taken, the Church is still here; but in Canada, and much of the Western world, she is a shadow of herself.
Most Catholics don’t go to mass from one Christmas to the next. Most Christians don’t worship from one Easter to the next. Few pray regularly, really only in times of crisis. Lives of questionable morality are lived, and I’m not saying lives that are absolutely degenerate, but the last concern in most people’s lifestyle decisions is their relationship with God and their eternal soul.
The Church has too often made its play for people’s affections, and tried to appeal to popular tastes. This isn’t condemnation of contemporary music in the mass, or saying we shouldn’t express some of the common concerns of our society around, say the environment or international peace, or justice within our society.
But what did Jesus ask us to do?
“… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
We know that what Jesus taught is not easy to follow, that much of current morality to which the majority of Canadian Catholics follow is at odds with His teaching; that the consequences of doing so, again from what Jesus tells us, are not going to be brief stays in purgatory, but eternal alienation from God, that is, Hell.
Jesus talks about Hell more than any other figure in the Scriptures. I think he’s serious about that.
But for all the severity of Jesus’ message, remember what he teaches today: all of us can turn back to God, no matter how greatly we’ve sinned. Redemption is possible for everyone. You and I can always get our lives back on track, find true meaning and purpose, and begin to live a life in communion with the source of all life and enjoy that harmony now and forever.
Those of us who think we’re on track need to take care and to always be honest about ourselves, and any sense of satisfaction we have. Are we mistaking the trappings of a successful life as evidence of our redemption?
A favourite author of mine is the American writer, Flannery O’Connor. I think every high school should have her on the reading list as proof that a Catholic writer can be engaging. O’Connor shocks the reader with brutal honesty. And in writing about the American South in the era of Jim Crow, she has characters who speak the authentic language of that time and place without concern that it is profoundly offensive. She uses the “N” word.
One of her more famous stories, entitled “Revelation” takes its theme from our gospel passage today. The central character is Ruby Turpin who sees herself as a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. Most of the story is set in a doctor’s waiting room some time in the morning. We read Ruby’s thoughts and follow her conversation with others and we quickly see that she thinks rather a lot of herself, as a woman of charity to both “black and white, and to white trash too.” She is condescending. A girl in the waiting room, grows infuriated at Ruby, and hurls a book at her, giving Ruby a big bruise over her eye, and screams at her, “Go back to Hell, you old wart hog!”
Ruby, nurses her wound through the rest of the day, but it’s not the bruise over her eye—she can’t shake the conviction that through that girl God was speaking to her. And as the sun starts down in the evening, as Ruby tends to the last of her chores around her immaculate farm, she stops and at last answers God shouting in fury, “Who do you think you are?” And God answers in a vision, and Ruby is shown the procession of souls heavenward, black and white, and the white trash too, “and bringing up the rear of that great parade was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself… had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right… They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”
As St. Paul says to us, “let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
If we are the faithful, our vocation is to just this: shepherd the lost sheep home, usher them first through the gate, be happy that dusty and tired we are the last in—be reconciled to that and then truly you believe in Christ and his gospel, and follow the God who put us all ahead of himself, and sent His only begotten son that those who believe in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.