by Father Robert Powers
Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully divine. Like most human beings, He divided His world into people He could tolerate and those He could not. While He was not discriminatory or obtuse, He found He could only effectively proclaim the Kingdom of God to people who possessed a necessary trait to become His follower: the humility to recognize one’s own sins.
The absence of that trait in the scribes and Pharisees caused Jesus to clash with them on many occasions. Strangely enough, He had much common ground theologically with them, including beliefs in heaven and in angels. But their unwillingness to admit their own sinfulness He simply could not accept. And the Word of God that He preached could not touch their hearts.
Jesus had no problem dealing with sinners, no matter what the gravity or extent of the sin. Like the sinful woman at Bethany who washed His feet with her hair and anointed them, Jesus found that those with the worst moral track records responded most generously to His invitation to leave the margins of society, where their sinfulness had sentenced them, and to live in a new freedom in the Kingdom of God. Even among the Twelve, this humble admission of sinfulness existed. “Leave me, Lord. I am a sinful man,” Simon Peter said to Jesus as he fell to his knees, overwhelmed by the miraculous catch of fish Jesus had given Him.
Today’s parable highlights that prerequisite for discipleship in today’s Gospel. The first son refuses his father’s command to work but later repents of his disobedience and fulfills his order. The second son agrees to work but never goes to the vineyard.
The morally superior son, Jesus leads the chief priests and elders to conclude, is the first son who recognizes his sinfulness, converts and does the father’s will. By contrast, the second son who did not openly defy his father’s order to work, is viewed as morally inferior. He seems oblivious to his sins of dishonesty and sloth. Indifferent to and perhaps not fully conscious of his moral failings, he falls far behind the worst of sinners, including tax collectors and prostitutes.
Salvation Is for Sinners
The story is not the most developed of Jesus’ parables and not among the most beloved. The simple point it highlights, however, is as essential today as it has been since Jesus first preached the message: Salvation is for sinners, and identification of oneself as a sinner is vital for one to be saved by Jesus Christ.
At several points, the Mass reminds us of this necessity to be mindful of our sinfulness. We begin the Mass calling to mind our sins – not the sins of others, or just an admission to God that we are sinners in an abstract sense. We must recall in silence the concrete sins of our personal lives. At the symbolic washing of his hands at the offertory, the priest’s prayer reflects consciousness of sin in himself and in those with whom and for whom he offers the sacrifice: “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” The last words the congregation speaks before receiving Holy Communion also remind us that it is not our right but our privilege to receive: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
The conscious offering of these prayers at Mass is not sufficient to maintain a sense of one’s sin. The sacrament of confession has long been taught by the Church as the ordinary means by which the grace is imparted that enables a person to see the presence of sin in one’s life. Lack of frequency with confession has afflicted many, even regular churchgoers, with a blindness that prevents them from seeing sin within themselves. And the widespread rejection by so many Catholics of the teaching that Holy Communion should not be received by those who are categorically in the state of mortal sin (including deliberate absence at even one Sunday Mass or holy day of obligation) has certainly eroded many consciences.
The parable challenges us to make the right choice: Identify as sinners in order to gain eternal life.[hr]Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Psalm 25: 4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
Philippians 2: 1-11 or
Philippians 2: 1-5
Matthew 21: 28-32[hr]Father Robert M. Powers is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Long Island City, and the chaplain at LaGuardia Community College.