This Sunday, Our Good Intentions Mean Nothing — or Worse
This Sunday, the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Jesus tells the Parable of the Two Sons, which makes us ask: Which son am I?
Most of us, if we did an examination of conscience with that question in mind, would find we are the wrong son.
A father gives the same order to two sons: “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” “I will not,” says one, but then goes to work anyway. The other says “I will,” but never does.
“Which of the two did his Father’s will?” he asks. “The first,” comes the answer.
Correct. Jesus doesn’t want us to say the right things, feel the right things, or virtue signal the right way. He wants us to do his will.
In other words, he doesn’t give you credit because you care deeply about the plight of the poor. You have to serve the poor. He doesn’t give you credit because you are eloquent about the need for prayer. He wants you to actually have a prayer life. He doesn’t look at the posts you shared on social media. He looks at the goods you shared in real life.
As St. John Henry Newman points out, professing without practicing is actually worse than never professing at all.
In his sermon “Knowledge of God’s Will Without Obedience,” Newman points out the awful predicament so many of us will face when we die.
“Go before God’s judgment-seat, and there plead that you know the Truth and have not done it,” he says “How will it there be taken? ‘Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee,’ says our Judge himself, and who shall reverse his judgment?”
Newman, who is a master of the psychology of religious people as well as theology, points to the root of the problem in his sermon, “Profession without Practice”:
“This then is hypocrisy — not simply for a man to deceive others, knowing all the while that he is deceiving them, but to deceive himself and others at the same time, to aim at their praise by a religious profession, without perceiving that he loves their praise more than the praise of God, and that he is professing far more than he practices.”
We become hypocrites even while we hate hypocrisy. How? Our conversion goes something like this: We experience the inadequacy of the world’s answers and see the truth of Christianity. We embrace Christ, and in our excitement at having found him, we learn our apologetics backwards and forwards. Soon, we know all about what we are supposed to do. But our conversion was intellectual, and our expression of it is intellectual. The habits of our old life remain, even while we feel increasingly enlightened and holy. We become experts in ignoring our own actions, and focus on all the truth we are finally getting right, instead.
The Jewish context gives us even more reason to worry.
What we forget is, the fact that we joined the Church is a great, great thing, but membership in the Church means next to nothing about whether or not we will be saved in the end. Thinking that we have become part of a privileged company of people who Jesus will save no matter what is an Old Testament idea, not a New Testament idea.
And it’s an idea that the Old Testament itself challenged. The First Reading, from Ezekiel, is one of the oldest passages in Scripture to emphasize the importance of individual responsibility over corporate responsibility.
“When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die,” Ezekiel says. “But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.”
In the Gospel, Jesus is telling his audience that being Pharisees is not enough; being Jewish is not enough. Gentiles, tax collectors and prostitutes who do God’s will are going to find salvation but they will not.
Jesus is telling us that our political stances and our voting history is not enough. Being part of the right circles of good people is not enough. Being the right kind of Catholic won’t save us. We have to do God’s will or we’re lost.
Paul identified two virtues that help keep us from bring hypocrites.
In Sunday’s Second Reading, Paul sums up the essence of Christianity as humility and obedience. “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,” he says.
After all, Jesus himself, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” Jesus himself chose humility and obedience: “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
A humble heart, ready for direction, and an obedient spirit, willing to follow, will keep hypocrisy at bay.
A lot rides on this lesson. Which is why Jesus brings it up again and again. And again.
For the record here are some of the ways Jesus has pleaded this case to us (emphasis added):
- 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” (Matthew 7:21).
- When he talks about building on rock instead of sand, he says: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock,” he says (Matthew 7:24).
- You can’t tell Christians by who they hang out with, he says, but: “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16).
- This is even true of the Blessed Mother. She isn’t great because she bore him, he says, but “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28). How can we be like Mary? “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it,” (Luke 18:21) he says.
- He will surprise us one day, and “Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing” his will he says (Luke 12:43).
- When he judges the nations, it isn’t those who recognize him who are saved, it is those who have served the needy. (Matthew 25:31-40)
So it’s safe to say that he really means it. Outward signs of holiness mean nothing to him. He only cares if we actually do the things he is asking us to do.