Over the last four weeks, we have examined four destructive and isolating behaviors and attitudes Jesus addressed in the gospel readings over the same period. These include making judgments about others, refusing to forgive people, as well as jealousy and resentment when others have received more than their fair share. Indulging these behaviors and attitudes is like getting up on a “high horse” with a false arrogance that comes from jealousy, bitterness, indignation, and resentment.
This week in the gospel reading, Jesus calls out the smug, sanctimonious, and self-righteous nature of the chief priests and elders of the people. They had set themselves up on high horses over the people, demanding stringent observance of the Mosaic law and standards that were nearly impossible to achieve. But Jesus tells them that even the most notorious sinners of the day, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” would be first to enter the kingdom of heaven because they had repented.
The gospel reading identifies two types of “sons.” The first agreed to go into the father’s “vineyard” and work, but then did not, while the second initially refused, but then changed course. The worst offenders and violators of the law, Jesus suggests, were like the sons who at first refused to go but then did what the father asked, while the chief priests and elders were too self-satisfied to comply. Their pretentious and supercilious attitude was the result of their sense of ownership of the law that had been handed down from Moses. In other words, they believed that they could save themselves by rigid observance of the law and therefore rejected even God’s Son and refused to go into the vineyard to tell others about the message of salvation he had brought to humanity.
We have all heard the message of repentance. But how deeply do we perceive the need to change, grow, and deepen in our spiritual lives, leaving behind sin, arrogance, false beliefs, and destructive behaviors? Are we willing to get off our high horses and join the rest of the human race in the struggle of life, recognizing our dependency on God? Or do we remain entrenched in the stubborn belief that we can do it ourselves, with a private spirituality and the false belief that simply attending Mass once a week and receiving the Eucharist with a closed heart is sufficient to save ourselves?
As lifelong Catholics, the temptation to treat the sacraments and Sunday Mass like talismans is ever present. Without intending it, we can easily fall into the trap of believing, like the chief priests and the elders of the people in the gospel reading, that our external religious observance will be enough to “earn” our way into heaven. Yet, the grace of God poured out in the sacraments is a living relationship with the God who desires our whole hearts. The grace of the sacraments will indeed remain inactive in our lives, unless we are open to its effects and are willing to go into the vineyard to do the Father’s will. In other words, true repentance means investing ourselves fully in the God who created and loves us and is the only way off our high horses.
Father Roger Gustafson