Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily of the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year A 2017 at Holy Family Parish, East Granville
30 September 2017
In a few short years, Pope Francis has developed a reputation for saying things that surprise and even shock his audience. Let me give you of just a few examples of his provocative style. On one occasion, he said “Women in the Church are more important than bishops and priests”. If that does not raise an eyebrow, wait for the next quote. “I believe in God, not a Catholic God. There is no Catholic God.” That sounds more like Rev Ian Paisley of Belfast. Then, on the subject of the Church being more daring and ever ready to launch into the deep, which is his regular theme, he says this: “Let us try to be a Church that finds new roads for those who have quit or are indifferent”. Then, of course there is this bombshell: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” I think we’d better fasten our seat belts for a bumpy ride with Captain Francis.
Jesus, too, is never far from controversy. It seems that he clashes regularly with the religious leaders of his time. His words and actions often challenge the accepted social values, attitudes and prejudices. In last Sunday’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we already witnessed the clash between Jesus and the religious leaders. He challenges the culture of entitlements and privileges that favours them. The owner of the vineyard does not use the merit-based system. He does not pay the workers on the basis of their productivity. Instead he applies a familial model of generosity, equality and inclusion from which even the last comer or – to use a contemporary language – the “queue jumper” benefits.
In today’s parable, Jesus continues to portray a God who is interested in applying the medicine of mercy and in making outsiders insiders. The father tells the first son to go to work in the vineyard. He refuses at first, then changes his mind and goes. The second son, on the other hand, pays honour to his father. “Certainly, sir” he responds. But it turns out that it is only a lip service. He does not do his father’s bidding in the end. Jesus concludes with a real shocker that makes all of Pope Francis’ provocative statements look mild: “I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the Kingdom of God before you, (the ostentatiously virtuous and religious).”
In a culture of honour and shame, tax collectors and prostitutes carry the worst possible social stigma. By crafting the parable in their favour, Jesus reverses the table. The lowly and despised who avail themselves of God’s mercy are reckoned righteous. The privileged who see no need of repentance are condemned for their arrogance. In God’s Kingdom, the outsiders can really become insiders, and the insiders can become outsiders. There is no one who we can write off as being too far outside God’s reach or God’s Kingdom.
Brothers and sisters!
The Word of God today invites us to be open to God’s offer of mercy. Wherever we are in our journey of faith and life, whether we are like the first or the second son, God joins us and accompanies us to greater transformation.
In the first reading, Ezekiel speaks of the kind of God we encounter in the person and teaching of Christ – a God who forgives freely, welcomes unconditionally and loves without limits. Ezekiel sums it up for us in this telling statement: “All the sins the sinner committed will be forgotten because of the integrity he has practiced.” In other words, God is the God of compassion rather than judgement. This is the same God who embraces the prodigal son, who surprises the eleventh-hour worker and who lavishes love on tax collectors and sinners.
The genius of the biblical revelation is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates falling to achieve wholeness. Jesus is never upset at even the worst kind of sinners; he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners! This is why he makes the shocking statement to indict them.
His critique of religious hypocrisy is not limited to individuals. We must be humble enough to examine whether our faith community has a kind of a second son culture, that is, we display symptoms of a judgemental, closed and insular community. Pope Francis is fond of saying that the Church is not a museum for saints or an enclosure for the virtuous. It is more like a field hospital, which heals the wounded, strengthens the weak and lifts up the lowly. It is a place where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel.
Let us endeavor to live the radical grace of God that turns outsiders into insiders. As we recognise our own need of repentance and conversion, let us be the Church that reaches out to embrace, accompany, encourage, and engage with people’s struggles, wounds and failings, rather than one that isolates and condemns them.
St Paul gives us a magnificent reflection of the self-emptying of Christ which is a pattern for all of us. In every circumstance, Jesus always responded with the same motion of self-emptying – or taking the lower place, not the higher. It is his downward journey in order to demonstrate God’s radical love that sees him raised as the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let us follow his example in identifying ourselves with the humble, suffering and crucified Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. Let us walk together in the journey of hope, faith and love as we avail ourselves constantly of the depth of God’s forgiving love in Christ.