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Of Chief Priests, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes and Eternal Consequences

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“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” ~ Samuel Johnson

Today’s Gospel (Matthew 21:28-32) certainly starts off innocently enough, with Jesus asking the Chief Priests and Elders of the people for their opinion with regard to a hypothetical scenario. There was a man who had two sons, Jesus explains. He approached the first and asked him to go out and work in his vineyard. The son initially refuses to do so but ultimately changes his mind, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work. Upon approaching the second son with the same order, the boy replied ‘Yes, sir’ but, to borrow a popular idiom most often employed by the youngsters in our midst, he blew it off.

Jesus’ question? “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The Chief Priests and Elders replied immediately and in unison “The first.” Whatever smugness or self-righteous thoughts these men may have felt upon passing this exam with flying colors surely dissipated upon hearing Jesus respond to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” He goes on to say that “When John (the Baptist) 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.”

Every choice we make has consequences. Every one. These choices do not merely effect the here and now, but eternity and eternal life. Heaven and hell. Each one of us will ultimately dwell in one or the other forever. There are but two destinations. These are them.

In some respects, this parable is the fleshing out of the Our Father Prayer, introduced earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6:9-13). This short parable of the “two imperfect sons” ~ for lack of a better title ~ speaks to the devotion with which we pursue the will of the Father, allowing us to truly reflect upon these words that are so pivotal to the Christian life: Thy will be done.

In this parable, we know what was asked of these two sons. We know the respective choices they made. That’s really it. Scripture doesn’t fill in any of the other gaps. But we can all relate to both sons, for in our Christian journey we have all imitated them both at one point or another. Like all of Jesus’ parables, this tale serves to awaken us to acknowledge certain aspects of our own identity. They work by instilling a “growing discomfort” within our souls, to reflect upon the good, the bad and yes, the ugliness in our lives.

Nowhere in my opinion is this more evident than in Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees. in these tense encounters, Jesus would at times use parables. Other times he was more blunt. The clueless Catholic reads these parables and thinks to himself “Wow, thank God I’m not like the Pharisees.” The honest, introspective and enlightened Catholic however uses these parables to do a deep-dive in areas pertaining to the examination of one’s conscience. They come to realize that they too can be hypocritical, scrupulous, judgmental, self-absorbed and at times downright mean-spirited.

Every time we sin we essentially idolize ourselves, turning our back on Jesus in our vainglory. This is where the penitential component of Advent can be so vital to our growth. By saying no to ourselves, by essentially emptying ourselves of ourselves, our yes to God can be a genuine and wholehearted yes, not a conditional, disingenuous, or lukewarm yes.

I leave you with a quote from author Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who poses this thought in his classic Advent book God is in the Manger:

“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Revelation 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”

Let “my will be done” become “thy will be done” this Advent Season. Let your life reflect the faith you have in God. Fear nothing and pray about everything. Trust God. And yes, trust in his plan for you.

“His name will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us.” ~ Matthew 1:23