In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus told a fairly straightforward parable about a man with two sons. The man ordered both sons to work in the vineyard. The first son said, “I will not,” but afterwards changed his mind and went to work. The second son said, “Sure, Pop, whatever you say,” but never went into the vineyard to work.
Jesus asked, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The answer was obvious: the first son.
Jesus’ message also was obvious: you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
But there is a lot more to this lesson than simply that. Jesus addressed this parable to “the chief priests and elders of the people.” These were the guys who ruled Israel’s religious-industrial complex. The average citizen looked up to them as being closer to God and more holy and righteous than anyone else. (And if you weren’t sure, all you had to do was ask them. They’d be more than happy to tell you just how holy and wonderful they were.) These men were wealthy and powerful, and they could ruin the lives of anyone who displeased them.
After telling the simple parable, Jesus looked these guys straight in the eye and said, “I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
Whoa, that was an incredibly shocking and insulting statement. It’s no wonder the chief priests and elders were determined to kill Jesus. In their pompous self-righteousness, they were extremely offended by Jesus. And they were too blinded by their power and prestige to realize that His words were right on the money.
It would be like some common peasant telling King Henry the Eighth, “Hey, Chubby, why don’t you settle down with one woman for a change and stop being such a jerk?” Safe to say that particular peasant’s life expectancy would have been drastically reduced at that moment (down to exactly…one moment).
If there’s one thing pompous and powerful hypocrites hate, it’s when someone tells them the truth about their hypocrisy.
In this week’s second reading. St. Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”
Wow, is Paul kidding? Selfishness is the cornerstone of our society these days. They don’t call us the “Me Generation” for nothing. Far too many people go through life these days focused solely on maximizing their personal possessions, pleasure, and power—and our culture applauds them for having their priorities straight.
Paul warns against doing anything “out of vainglory.” The word vainglory is kind of cool, and regrettably it is not used very often these days. But the dictionary definition of vainglory is clear: “Extreme self-pride and boastfulness; excessive and ostentatious vanity.”
Jesus’ parable and St. Paul’s instruction do not apply only to powerful rulers, like the chief priests and elders and King Henry the Eighth. Everyday, middle-class folks can also become hypocritical, selfish, self-righteous, and vainglorious. Present-day Christians can learn a lot from this week’s Scripture readings. Are we truly doing what the Lord commands us to do? Are we truly loving our neighbors as ourselves?
When we get to Heaven, we’re going to be very surprised by who is there: tax collectors, prostitutes, drunks, and punks covered in piercings and tattoos.
And we’re going to be very, VERY surprised by who is not there: pompous chief priests and elders, sourpuss grouches with perfect church attendance, and cold-hearted hypocrites who said to God, “Sure, Pop, whatever you say,” but then never did their heavenly Father’s will.