26th Sunday OT: Ez 18.25-28; Phil 2.1-11; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX
What do you hear when the call for repentance from sin goes out? What words enter your hearing? And what do you do about it?
I can tell you what I heard and what I did. I was 10 years old and finishing out the week at Freameux Ave. Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School. Br. Oscar, the preacher, came to our classroom and gave a ringing message on the necessity of repentance and the joys of accepting Jesus Christ into one’s heart as Lord and Savior. Now, glancing around the classroom, I quickly realized that I was the only one not so saved. I did not know Jesus in the way that Br. Oscar insisted that I know him. That afternoon, after the big empty pretzel jar full of pennies made its round in the pews collecting new pennies, I decided that I had better walk the aisle to the prayer rail and make Br. Oscar—and for good measure, Jesus—happy. And I did. Later, one of my older friends asked me if I had been saved or had I just joined the Church. I said I didn’t know. He scoffed and said, “Well, you aren’t saved. ‘Cause if you were, you’d know it.” I had fooled no one.
When the call for repentance of sin went out, I heard the voice of social pressure to conform, the call of Baptist culture to align myself with the dominant religious “type” or model of salvation. I heard the snickers of my fellow Bible school vacationers when it became evident that I was the only heathen left on the playground. I heard the teachers wonder about the condition of my family life. I heard just about any and everything BUT the voice of God calling me to forsake my sinful ways and come to Jesus. I walked the aisle to relieve an embarrassing social problem, but true repentance was far, far away.
What do you hear when the call for the repentance from sin goes out? Do you look around and wonder who Father is talking to? Do you snicker inside knowing who Father is talking about? Do you wonder if you’re the target? Or is this repentance from sin stuff just for the grubby crowd—ya know: the unwashed, the uneducated, the not properly theologized herd, those people over there? You know, the tax collectors, the prostitutes…those people.
Well, those people heard the call from John the Baptizer before the chief priests and the elders. Or, more precisely, the tax collectors and prostitutes listened to the call and actually repented while the chief priests and elders heard, but failed to listen and failed to believe. Even before those trained to hear, to listen, and to obey the voice of God, before these, the worse sinners, the grubbiest of the grubby of the nation, heard, listened, and obeyed. And because of this failure, Jesus says to the priests and elders, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
Now, this parable isn’t about how tax collectors and prostitutes are holier than priests and elder. Nor is it about how tax collecting and prostitution aren’t really sinful after all. It is a parable about the difference between hearing the Word and doing nothing about it AND hearing the Word and doing the Work it requires. The sons in the parable are distinguished not by a difference in their agreement to do their father’s will—the second agrees immediately do his father’s will, the first agrees eventually—no, they are distinguished by a difference in what they DO with their father’s will. Both hear, both listen, both agree—one instantly, one later; however, one does the work, the other doesn’t.
The point of the parable is this: the difference that makes the difference for our salvation is doing the will of the father, not just hearing, not just listening, not just agreeing—but doing, doing that which the Father has asked us to do. Earlier, Jesus had taught his disciples this hard lesson: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7.21).
What do you hear when the call for repentance from sin goes out? Do you hear religiously sounding rhetoric? Sad attempts at clerical control? Do you hear the preacher speaking over your head to your neighbors? To your enemies? To your well-meaning but terribly immoral friends? What do you hear? Do you hear the gospel message of conversion, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and eternal life? Do you hear it? Listen to it? Agree with it? And then do it?
Jesus has spent the last two months teaching us how to live as a Church, how to be a body of witnesses for his passion, death, and resurrection. We forgive one another as many times as it takes. We correct one another in charity for the sake of the other’s salvation. We work the Father’s will in the world, not just agree to it and do nothing. We repent from our sins and turn back to God, knowing that we share with Christ an inheritance beyond this world.
Paul begs the Philippians, “…complete my joy, [brothers and sisters], by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”
In Christ we stretch our intellects to one end, our wills for the good of the other to one end; in that place where we meet God most intimately—our hearts—we find one another at rest; and we believe with single-mindedness a single thing: that Jesus Christ is Lord! It is here, in this single will, this single mind, this single purpose and belief, here that we participate in the Spirit; here that we find solace in love, complete compassion, willing mercy; and it is here that we do nothing out of selfishness or out of vanity seeking false glory. Here we are the Church.
What do you hear when the call for repentance from sin goes out? With the encouragement of Christ, hear the Father’s voice calling you—calling all of us—back to Him for forgiveness. Calling all of us back to the work of the Word in the world, the work our baptism requires of us, the work order we heard, listened to, and agreed to complete.
Walk this aisle tonight, receive Him with thanksgiving and praise. And walk out of those doors fully loaded, ready and willing to be His witness, to be Christ for others…not out of social pressure or b/c of the Catholic culture of U.D., but b/c you have heard His Word, listened to it, agreed to do His will, and, most importantly, b/c you find yourself impatient to be about your Father’s work!