At the very early morning Mass one unsuspecting Tuesday in the Seminary, a venerable and gentle priest began his admirably short homily with a list – an amazing list of all sorts of people, people of different ethnic groups and nationalities, various lifestyles and unsavory occupations and habits, one after the other, using succinctly only the most shocking, politically incorrect and socially unacceptable vulgar racial, national (and other) epithets to describe them. We were all, needless to say, suddenly quite wide awake; this was not the beginning of your ordinary homily.
Now, the high standards of this website together with just plain good taste forbid me from reproducing the actual terms he used, but I imagine you’ve heard most, if not all, of them somewhere, but probably not in a homily. I think you get the picture.
After having listed all these colorful terms, he simply said: “You will be surprised by the people you meet in Heaven.”
You can imagine what everyone was talking about at breakfast that morning.
While I would not recommend his rhetorical approach, the truth is that I have never forgotten the homily, even after many years, nor have I forgotten the raw power of the shock it gave me. The Gospel, as a famous phrase pointedly reminds us, is meant to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
And this is exactly what the Lord Himself was doing when he dared – dared! – to tell the chief priests and the elders that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before they would.
And while Jesus did not quite use racial slurs to make His point, we can hardly imagine how scandalous, how offensive, how rude it was in that society to be called either a tax collector or a prostitute (not that it’s particularly friendly today, pace to any IRS employees), especially if you were one of the good guys, so to speak: the priests, the elders, the ones who were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
And to make it worse, this presumptuous upstart, this self-proclaimed rabbi (with a whiff of blasphemy about him), had just led the priests and elders into a brilliant trap, the same trap we often fall into. “Which son,” he asked them, “did his Father’s will? The one who said ‘Yes’ but didn’t go, or the one who said ‘No’ but went into the field?” In truth, He was asking them (and us, right now!) “Which son are you?”
They, of course, being intelligent, gave the obvious and correct answer: “the one who actually went into the field, even though he’d said ‘No’.” And with that they denounced themselves!
In their self-righteousness (an ailment to which we, too, are susceptible), they saw themselves as the Sons (of Abraham, thereby belonging to God) who are saying ‘Yes!’, who were saying ‘yes’ in all that they did, in the keeping of the Law, in their prayers and fasting (all of which is, by the way, most excellent). And they thought that was enough.
But in the parable, the son who says ‘yes’ is not the one who does his father’s (or Father’s) will. He does not go into the field. Because going into the field means following Christ. But before one can follow Christ, one must – as the son who said ‘no’ did – turn around. The Scripture tells us that “he afterwards changed his mind” (which could also be “he repented” or “he regretted”); there is, of course, a deeper sense in this phrase, both in Greek and English, that of a conversion, a turning around.
And that’s why the tax collectors, the prostitutes and so many of those other messy sinners who’ve been up to no good – saying ‘no’, as it were – are marching into the Kingdom: not because they’ve said ‘no’ – that doesn’t get you anywhere – but because they’ve turned around, had a change of heart, a conversion.
Because they have started going into the field, following Jesus, entering into Jesus. Because even after rejecting God’s will with a chorus of Nos (Noes, No’s – take your pick!), after a lifetime of whiney “I don’t wanna’s!” (closer, actually, to what the son says in the original Greek!), they started to turn around, to put that useless and destructive ‘no’ behind them and started – in deeds, if not yet explicitly in words – to utter the Great Yes who is Christ.
If you know your ‘no’ is no good, then it’s easier to change and say ‘yes’; if you think your ‘yes’ is the answer, then you have almost no chance to change.
Usually only when we realize that we’re messy and dirty and stinky, that we’ve actually been saying ‘no’ to Christ in various ways (no to trying to forgive others, no to patience, or love, or prayer, or what the Church teaches, and so on), do we find the impetus, the confidence, the strength to turn around, to convert. That is the great advantage the sinner who knows he’s a sinner has – the awareness of his sins. Not so, however, for the sinner (we’re all sinners) who uses his yes to hide his no.
Of course, in this tricky parable, the real hero is hidden. It’s certainly not the son who said yes – he’s still deluding himself that he’s done what his father wants just by saying ‘yes.’ Neither is it really the son who said ‘no’ but finally did the father’s will – that’s where we’ve all been and from where we’re coming. The real hero, of course, is Christ, the Son who both said Yes (His whole life is an uttering of an Eternal Yes to His Father) AND also did His Father’s will.
The promise of this parable is hidden, too. Wherever we find ourselves right now – maybe more the Son or Daughter who says ‘yes’ and does less, or the one who says ‘no’ but comes around in the end – there is the hope of becoming the One who both says and does the Father’s Will. The more we allow ourselves to be caught up in Christ, the more we let him turn us away from both the ‘No’ that leads to death and the false ‘Yes’ that is but a self-justifying illusion, the more we can become the real Son and Daughter of God.
An epilogue that perhaps has little to do with this homily but which I include for the sake of completeness and perhaps as an encouragement to the equanimity which frees us. Shortly after the homily I recounted earlier, a Vietnamese seminarian of great drollery came up to the homilist and said with (believable but mock) seriousness, “Father, I’m offended!” The good priest was not quite sure what to say and mumbled nervously a bit; the seminarian (now a very good priest, by the way) took pity on him: “I’m offended. I feel left out – you had no specific offensive term for Vietnamese people in your homily, just generic oriental slurs!”
To see everything with holy humor leads us closer to seeing everything, even ourselves, sub specie æternitatis, the way God sees. I’m sure we will be surprised by the people we meet in Heaven, but they might also be surprised to find us there. That is the beginning of joy; we might even start practicing it now.
Prepared for Aleteia by the Canonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.