Tax Collectors? Harlots? Really?

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I’ve noticed that some folks appreciate straight talk and some folks don’t. In fact, there seem to be whole cultures where plain talk is discouraged because certain cultures consider it rude. I’ve seen this reality play out with different concepts about honesty as well.

A friend of mine told me about her business dealings with someone in a very different culture than hers that illustrates what I’m talking about. She was already aware that the concept of deadlines and honest assessments of timelines were already something of a challenge in this multi-cultural situation. So she thought she’d speak plainly to her business partner concerning the serious deadline about delivering his part of the project on time. She stressed this deadline was hard and necessary and she emphasized this over and over again. Each time her business partner assured her he was ready to comply and he understood the necessity of delivering his part of the project. Well, the deadline came and went and no word from the man. After a week of trying to reach him, she finally connected and he was very angry with her that she actually expected him to do what he said. After all, he was only being polite in agreeing with her earlier demands, but had no intentions of actually following through.

Honest communication is, admittedly, disconcerting at times. It’s hard to hear at times. We humans really want to avoid conflict and unpleasantness. But sometimes the only way to get us off neutral is to talk straight and plain and use the power of that jarring moment to rouse us from our anesthetized stupor!

And that is what Jesus does today in our Gospel Lesson. The Lord uses plain talk and a stark comparison to wake up His hearers to the reality laid before them. It turns out those who think of themselves as “good” people have a harder time repenting than those who know they aren’t good people!

Look at Matthew 21:28-32: The Lord said this parable, “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.”

The Lord’s hearers condemn themselves with their answer to His question. They admit that the second son who promised to go and work and didn’t was disobedient to the call of the Father, while the first son who rebelled but repented and went to the fields was really the faithful son. Clearly Jesus was confronting those who do all the easy stuff of outward piety while their hearts reject the real power of the Faith to change them from the inside out!

Today, which “son” are you? Do you work at developing the humility and true honesty about your own faithfulness that avoid the twin traps of self-justification and self-loathing? Turns out both of those traps keep you prisoner to a dishonest and inaccurate assessment of your love for God. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the wise and timeless insight of the Faith that calls us to regular confession and a healthy distrust of our ability to accurately “see” ourselves by ourselves. No wonder the wisdom of the faith instructs me to embrace a sense of community and communion that is more than mere lip service, but an actual loving community committed to serving one another in spiritual growth.

As we approach the Feast of the Dormition and the “summer Pascha” with its beautiful affirmation of Christ’s absolute victory over death, embrace the hard truth that your spiritual life will benefit more from a humble confession than a perpetual delusion of “I’m not so bad.” Your ego will be healthier for it and so will your soul!

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