26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” Ouch. This had to sting. Jesus spoke these shocking words not just to anybody. He spoke them to “the chief priests and elders of the people.” The ones who were professional law-keepers. The ones who were religious leaders and teachers. The ones who were, in truth, self-righteous, pompous, and presumptuous. Jesus must have known how offensive it would be to his audience to share this unpleasant fact. But he said it anyway because he knew they needed to hear it.
But the point wasn’t to offend. The point was to amend. Jesus was urging them to change their lives for the better, to come to God with a humble, contrite heart, seeking forgiveness and mercy. These unrepentant upper-crust leaders were plagued by an inability to see their own sins. They were far too focused on identifying where others were going wrong. And, as was his style, Jesus’ preaching was adapted according to his audience. These guys needed to get knocked out of their complacency. So Jesus did what he had to do.
It’s important to realize, by the way, that the reason tax collectors and prostitutes were leading the line to heaven wasn’t because of their sins. It was because of their sorrow. The people Jesus had in mind when he mentioned this—like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene perhaps—had repented from their sinful behavior and begun anew. This is why he praises them. And this is what the Lord longs to see everyone doing, including us. Either we need to acknowledge and repent of our sins, or we are placing ourselves in the same category as the pharisaical priests and elders. And that’s definitely not the place to be.