THE TAX COLLECTORS AND THE HARLOTS GO INTO THE KINGDOM OF GOD BEFORE YOU
(A biblical reflection on the 26th ORDINARY SUNDAY [Year A], 1 October 2017)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 21:28-32
First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalms: Psalm 25:4-9; Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11
The Scripture Text
“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32 RSV)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter God’s Kingdom before the chief priest and elders. As you can imagine, the chief priest and elders were probably not very happy when they heard this.
As the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, the chief priest officiated at worship services on Jewish holy days, was the main religious teacher, and had the responsibility of protecting the Jewish law. Because the chief priest represented the entire community, the Jews believed he should be holier then anyone else.
The elders were older Jewish men respected for their wisdom. They usually made up the town council, the city’s main governing body. Also known as the Sanhedrin, the town council passed laws, enforced these laws, and even tried those who were accused of breaking the laws. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin is the group that arrested Jesus and determined He should die.
So, it appears Jesus was aiming His comments at the Jewish people’s religious leaders, who were regarded as very holy men and were supposed to be an example to the ordinary Jew. Because of their holiness, most people believed the chief priest and elders would occupy the places of honor in God’s Kingdom.
The prostitutes and the tax collectors were the exact opposite. As public sinners, despised by their fellow Jews, they were to occupy the lowliest spots if they ever made it to the Kingdom of Heaven. They certainly weren’t in the same league as the chief priest and the elders.
We are now ready to understand the meaning of Jesus’ comments. The chief priest and the elders said they were holy, but like the first son in the parable, they did not back up their words with action. They refused to repent when John the Baptist urged them to do so.
The tax collectors and the prostitutes who accepted John’s teaching and reformed their lives are like the second son who ended up doing his father’s will. Because of this, Jesus says they (not the chief priest and the elders) will have a prominent place in the Kingdom of Heaven, implying that the tax collectors and prostitutes are holier than the chief priest and elders. As you can imagine, Jesus angered the Jewish leaders so much they began to look for a way to put Him to death.
(Source: Jerome J. Sabatowich, Cycling Through the Gospels – Gospel Commentaries for Cycles A, B, and C, pages 96-97.)
Short Prayer: Holy Spirit, lead all people everywhere back to our merciful Father, who is waiting to pour the fullness of life into their hearts. Amen.
Jakarta, 29 September 2017
A Christian Pilgrim