In Praise of Tax Collectors and Prostitutes
Reflecting on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Three Days after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 87
Old Testament: Joel 3:17-20
Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32
Psalter: Psalm 84:8-12
Old Testament: Daniel 5:13-31
Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32
God of mercy and healing, you who hear the cries of those in need, receive our petitions that all who are troubled may know peace, comfort, and courage. Amen.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, and even after you saw it you did not change your minds and believe him (Matthew 21:28-32).
Jesus has a problem with the truth. His problem is that he tells the truth, come what may. Jesus never minces words. At times, we might say to someone who said something offensive, “It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it.” Jesus is uninterested in the latter.
The sin that irritated Jesus the most was hypocrisy. Merriam-Webster defines hypocrisy as “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not : behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel.” While that is a good definition, for the most part, I disagree with the word “feigning” as it implies an intentional pretending. Most hypocrisy is committed by sincere people, those who believe they are honest, but are not; or those who believe they are righteous, but are not. The religious leaders Jesus criticized were no doubt sincere, but they lacked the critical self-evaluation to see their self-deception.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“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. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Those who respond to Jesus in shock of their rejection appeal to their resumés. Jesus is unimpressed. Their hypocrisy may have been sincere, but it is still hypocrisy. Perhaps that is why Jesus is so brutally honest with everyone. No one could charge him with making a good show of things alone.
The great scandal of Jesus’ words is not only in pointing out the hypocrisy of the righteous, but highlighting the faith of the unrighteous, those considered the worst in society. I dare any preacher to say during the sermon on Sunday morning, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you!” Can we hear the church leadership at the next Board meeting? “Preacher, it’s not what you said; it’s how you said it. We know we don’t always live up to our faith, but did you have to tell us we were worse than thieves and hookers?”
We must not forget that Jesus spent his time being real nice to the sinners and criticizing the righteous. Another way to say it is that Jesus was kind to the wicked and disparaging of the good folks. Why? Jesus believed the righteous should know better. Just like we expect more out of an adult than a toddler, Jesus expected more out of those who knew the law and taught it to others. They should have received John’s words as prophetic. He proclaimed the way of righteousness and the righteous ones could not or refused to accept it. Those without the benefit of knowing the law heard John and believed. They responded in obedience to his call of repentance.
John and Jesus called everyone to a holy way of life. Jesus was not soft on thievery or illicit sex, but they also understood that one of the greatest human deceptions is to believe we are OK, especially when we compare ourselves to others. My sin doesn’t look so bad when I compare it to the sin of a multimillion dollar embezzler or a serial killer. We become willing to settle for our sin with a little “s” because at least we do not Sin with a capital “S.” The religious leaders could minimize their transgressions because “at least we aren’t tax collectors or prostitutes.” When we toss our sin into the shadows by throwing light on the sins of others, we embody the hypocrisy Jesus hates. When we do that, Jesus will cast his righteous light on our sanctimony and find others to highlight as an example of the kind of sincere faith he requires.
Perhaps sin is not as much of a scandal as the faith of those we deem unacceptable.
PRAYER: Move us to praise your gracious will, for in Christ Jesus you have saved us from the deeds of death and opened for us the hidden ways of your love. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Follow me in Instagram here.