What causes us to change our minds? What allows for our hearts to be changed, to be broken open? What blocks us from allowing ourselves to be changed? These questions seem to be at the heart of the matter.
– Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn (Feasting on the Word: Season After Pentecost 2, Volume 12) p. 120
The readings for the twenty-sixth Sunday in ordinary time cycle A can be found here.
Years ago I was teaching a scripture study class for RCIA (Catholic converts) in my parish. I had grown up there and was quite involved in the life of the parish. Those people who were converting to Catholicism did not know me from my days as a young snot nosed kid in that community, and that may have been a good thing.
One RCIA cycle I was approached by a young lady in the program who asked me to be her sponsor, and I accepted. It was a requirement that converts have a sponsor who they can rely on through the conversion process to act as a guide. In the past I had always managed to find someone else in the convert’s life to be their sponsor. After all I did not really know these folks well enough to spend the time needed to be a sponsor. That was my excuse, anyway.
I only agreed to be her sponsor after her parents intervened on her behalf. There was nobody else in her life she could trust with the secret information about her past. She had an abortion and was living with this remorse.
What a leap of faith it was for her to choose me. I am not a priest under a seal of the confessional. I was essentially a stranger who, other than her parents, knew her deepest most troubling shame. I believe that those people who came to John the Baptist must have had to make a similar leap of faith. They needed somebody to help them ritualize their repentance and die to their old self. They turned to John the Baptist.
I was to be her teacher of all things Catholic, but she was to be my teacher of repentance and salvation.
In order to better understand the Gospel reading for this Sunday we need to first read Matthew 21: 23-27. We are in luck because they are the verses that come just before our Gospel reading. The scripture scholar will tell you that the Gospel this Sunday is a midrash, or commentary, of these earlier verses. The best definition of a midrash comes from Rabbi Iscah Waldman when he describes it as “a literature that seeks to ask the questions that lie on the tips of our tongues, and to answer them even before we have posed them.”
As Matthew tells it in 21: 23-27, Jesus was teaching in the Temple courtyards when the Jerusalem leaders came up to Him and demanded to know under whose authority He was teaching. Jesus realized that this was a tricky question with no good answer and agreed to tell them what they wanted to know if they could tell Him the origin of baptisms of John the Baptist. Were they from heaven or a human origin.
It is clear that the Jerusalem leaders knew who John the Baptist was but did not believe in the repentance he preached. They reasoned that there was no good answer to the tricky question posed by Jesus so they claimed not to know the origin. This allowed Jesus to not answer their question of authority.
This brings us to the Gospel for this Sunday with the parable of the two sons. We all have a question on the tip of our tongues but before we can ask Jesus provides the commentary. Everybody agrees that the first son did the will of his father, much like the tax collectors who heard the message of John the Baptist and repented their sins. Everybody also agrees that the second son did not do the will of his father, much like the righteous Jerusalem leaders who heard the message of John the Baptist but did not repent.
John the Baptist, much like the prophet Amos before him, was a voice for justice and salvation. The salvation we are talking about is best described by Marcus Borg as “the transformation from death to life. Moving people from pre-occupation and anxiety to presence and compassion. Salvation is about the individual transforming and also the transformation of the world, transformation from a world justice to a world of justice.” He went on to describe that “justice is about the way the system is put together, justice is about how everyone should have enough of the material basis of life. God’s passion for justice in the bible — everyone have the basic needs of life.”
The world view of those Jerusalem leaders included an understanding of justice very different that John the Baptist. Tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor and lame, ect., received the level of justice that they deserved. In that world view those marginalized people had no real chance at salvation and the leaders of the community felt their salvation to be secured so why would there be a need to repent?
This is what I learned from spending one RCIA cycle with the young lady I sponsored; repentance is sacramental. I am talking about sacramental through which the spirit becomes present to us and lives within the sacrament. I am not talking about the seven sacraments of the Church but rather a deepening of the relationship with God.
This sacramental experience leads to ultimate transformation that is spiritual, compassionate, and to a dying to our old identity and being born to a new identity. The young convert would receive absolution through the sacrament of reconciliation, but the gifts of the spirit that come through repentance are so much more.
Nevertheless, let all the brothers preach by their works.
– St. Francis of Assisi (First Rule of the Friars Minor, Regula non bullata, XVII:3)
Before my experience with this young lady I was much more like those Jerusalem leaders who had absolutized God. “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus – No Salvation Outside the Church” was something I believed. My sense of salvation was informed by my understanding of justice and what I believed was deserved by others and myself.
I was so sure that I had all the answers but didn’t realize that I was the second son.
If you take one thing away from this homily it should be to examine your faith and if you cannot see any need for repentance, you might be like the second son in the parable. I am not talking about examining the list of mortal and venial sins offered by Church leaders. That list is no different than the list offered by those Jewish leaders who questioned Jesus’ authority. I am talking about the John the Baptist examination of justice and salvation.
I can tell you that repentant young ladies who have had abortions are going to heaven before us all. In the eyes of God they do not deserve salvation any less than you or me. If you cannot see that this is the justice of God you may be the second son in the parable.
I pray that this parable troubles your soul, and through the intercession of John the Baptist that we can bring justice and salvation to our world through our repentance.