Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25:4-9
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:1-11
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 21:28-32
Context is everything. Weekly Gospel readings often seem dropped literally from heaven and so the listener very often can find it to be difficult to see the big picture and to frame the words of Jesus within the story as a whole. For example, prior to the Gospel reading from this weekend there are two very important, and un-read, events: Jesus entering Jerusalem on a colt while the crowd lays palm branches in his path, and Jesus kicking the money changers out of the Temple and the subsequent stand-off with the authorities.
Thematically, the omission of these stories makes sense since the readings for the 25th and 26th Sundays in Ordinary Time focus on similar themes – parables that focus on the importance of working in the vineyard of the Lord. Yet, much could be gained from their inclusion and so a personal knowledge of the context can make this weekend’s reading that much more impactful.
Last Sunday Jesus was in Jericho telling a parable to His disciples, while this Sunday He is in Jerusalem speaking to “the chief priests and the elders of the people.” His disputes with them began prior to the entry into Jerusalem, but while in the capital He overturns their status quo in the Temple and then goes toe-to-toe with them over His authority. Not surprisingly, in their verbal jousting the chief priests and elders of the people had finished a dismal second.
Thus, when Jesus not only gives them a parable that compares these religious leaders to the insincere son who tells his father what he wants to hear and then does not follow through with actions, but then contrasts them with tax collectors and prostitutes – the good guys of the story – then one need not have a Ph.D. in theology to conclude that Jesus’ fate is sealed.
One can imagine how the chief priests and elders of the people might discuss their run-in with Jesus as they plot to bring about His downfall and crucifixion. What would stop these opponents of Jesus from telling their listeners that Jesus is on the side of tax collectors and prostitutes? After all, He does say that they are the ones who will enter the Kingdom before the chief priests and elders of the people.
In truth, Jesus endorses neither the despicable practices of those turncoat Jews who collected taxes for the Romans nor the dehumanizing ‘billable hour’ slavery known as prostitution. He is letting the chief priests and elders of the people know that when these people had a change of heart they were doing what was pleasing to the Father. Implicit in this conclusion is the belief that the chief priests and elders of the people are not pleasing to the Father.
Imagine if He had been a bit more off-the-cuff – say, like Pope Francis – and had said that it is better to be a prostitute who converts than a chief priest who doesn’t. The ‘Jesus Is Pro-Prostitution’ headline would certainly attract readers, but it would be a misrepresentation on par with what we’ve come to expect from news sources who intentionally twist the Holy Father’s words in an attempt to drive a wedge between Francis and his flock.
Contextually, Jesus is less than a week away from being physically and verbally abused by those who hailed His entrance into Jerusalem only days before. The chief priests and elders of the people must have done a very good job of spreading half-truths and outright lies about Jesus to get the job done so quickly.
This can serve as a great lesson to those who profess faith in the crucified and risen Savior and who adhere to the perennial teachings of the Bishop of Rome. Catholics must always be on the lookout for half-truths since, as the late Msgr. William Smith of the Archdiocese of New York once said, “Half-truths are like half-bricks – you can throw them twice as far.”
Context is everything, and paying attention to that fact can keep us away from the influence of today’s cultural chief priests and elders, while at the same time following the example of the tax collectors and prostitutes working in the Lord’s vineyard.