Priests, Prostitutes and Tax Collectors by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: "What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today,' He said in reply, 'I will not,' but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, 'Yes sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did his father's will?" They answered, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.
There is a curious prayer that greets penitents as they enter the confessional: “May God who has enlightened every heart help you to know your sins and trust in His mercy.” Sound moral theology defines a sin as the willful commission of an evil thought, word or deed. If we know a thought, word or deed is wrong and we freely choose the act, we are guilty of sin. At first glance this definition may seem to afford us an “easy out” if we are not aware of sinful behavior. Hence, the priestly prayer of the confessional greeting would seem to be problematic. But could it be that this very lack of awareness in itself may involve sin?
In this week’s Gospel Christ contrasts two sons, the first who refused to work in his father’s vineyard but later changed his mind and went; and the second son who said he would go, but did not. In answer to the question posed by Christ, the chief priests and elders agree that the son who “walked the walk” did the father’s will rather than the son who simply “talked the talk.” Actions, as usual, speak louder than words.
Christ uses their answer to indict them for their failure to practice what they preach. “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”
It is easy to identify the nature of the sins of the prostitutes and tax collectors. But it takes greater effort to identify the specific thoughts, words and deeds of the chief priests and elders (as well as the sins of the Pharisees and Sadducees) that were so grievous as to spark Christ’s harsh language of rebuke.
We know these enemies of Christ were self-righteous pious frauds whom Christ compared to “whitewashed tombs.” But peel away this false exterior and we might surmise the evil in their hearts as they laid the heavy burden of the law on pious Jews. Christ saved the woman caught in adultery from a stone-throwing crowd with a single phrase, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” Of course the sin of adultery requires one woman – and one man. Were the self-righteous chief priests and elders guilty of the sin? Were the chief priests and elders guilty of graft themselves as well as engaging the services of prostitutes? If so, sins of weakness are raised to horrifying heights of complicity, arrogance and betrayal. Did Christ see the pride of the evil one on their hearts?
After King David arranged for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband to cover up his adultery with her, he simply forgot about his crime and, in denial, tried to live happily ever after with his new bride. It took the rebuke of the prophet Nathan to break the demonic edifice of hypocrisy and pride that anesthetized his conscience. In response to David’s outage over the parable of the rich man who stole the beloved lamb of a poor man, Nathan had the courage to face down his king: “Thou art the man!” But David was not like the chief priests and elders. His hardness of heart was broken by God’s grace, and he became the model penitent writing, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.” (Ps 51:1-4)
Priests are frequently exposed to marital and family situations where the transgressions causing the trauma become crystal clear to anyone looking in from the outside. But the denial, pride, arrogance and hypocrisy of the offending parties often make it impossible to bring them to the first step of conversion: self-awareness of this sins. In this week’s Gospel, Christ makes it abundantly clear that even the priests and elders are not immune to the blindness that comes with patterns of sin and habitual denial. We all need God’s grace to see our sins in order to bring us to true conversion. And we all need the grace to trust always in God’s mercy.
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