By Matt Janeczko, OFM Cap.
When I was in high school, I happened to join a retreat team: the setup was simple, high school students giving Catholic retreats to other students, both in our school and to other surrounding grammar schools and high schools.
I don’t remember much of what we did, but there is one lesson in particular that stands out to me. I remember the leader of the retreat team, Gloria, saying over and over again: “Knowing the right thing to do and doing it are two totally different things.”
Ah yes, we know this well, don’t we?
When we get right down it, today’s Gospel hits close to home. We can, if we’re honest, identify ourselves as the son in either of the scenarios Jesus lays out. (We could identify ourselves as the daughter too.)
All of us know the feeling of doing the right thing despite the consequences; all of us too know about doing the wrong thing and feeling the effects. Even in those situations where we’ve gotten “away” with something, there always seems to be that feeling of regret: did anyone know? Or, as I say so often in the confessional, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but did it anyway.”
Is this parable from Jesus, then, simply a morality play: do what God tells you and all will be well? If we take things here at face value, we’re missing the point. Christian life isn’t about doing things and staying away from the wrong in order to avoid a punishment or to feel better about ourselves (Indeed, if we keep a tally, we’ll likely feel rather poorly.)
The key to this parable isn’t what the sons do: no, it’s how Jesus uses it to describe the Kingdom of God. We hear a rather stark challenge: tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before the religious experts.
The reason is simple: the sinners know Jesus.
The tax collectors and the prostitutes know Jesus because they’re the ones who realize that they need him. And so for us who tell little white lies, who find it hard to forgive, who lose our temper, who struggle with purity of heart: we don’t need to be perfect in order to know Jesus; rather, when we’re struggle, that is the perfect time to know Jesus!
And that’s Good News for us sinners. A sinner isn’t someone who does bad things, full stop. A sinner is someone who knows that he or she is a sinner and seeks reconciliation with God. To be identified as a sinner is to recognize our human weakness and the need we have for God. In fact, the precise reason why keep coming back, why we need confession over and over again, why we celebrate the Eucharist time and time again, rain or shine, is because we’re sinners and we need to carve out spaces in our lives to acknowledge this AND, at the same time, be reminded that God is always chasing after us, offering the Kingdom. We don’t get the Kingdom because we’re perfect; we get the Kingdom because we realize we’re not and allow God to bring it to us.
The way God loves us is, without a doubt, through life of Christ, and his continuing presence in our world through the Holy Spirit. Every time we hear the words that our sins are forgiven, that’s the Spirit working; every time we say Amen to the Body of Christ, that’s the Spirit working. Every time we see someone in need, and as Paul wrote “have in [us] the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” that’s the Spirit.
The challenge for us this week is not to be perfect: the challenge is to get to know Jesus. Let’s pick up that dusty bible, find the hidden Rosary, offer a prayer of thanks for a small blessing, or ask for forgiveness from our God who loves us.
This week, our goal ought not to be reaching the Kingdom: it’s to be realizing that we need to let our God reach us.