Our “Yes”: Appearances vs Living the Faith

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Ps 24; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

JESUS said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

IN a conversation with the American bishop, Robert Barron, controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson said that many of his critics usually try to pin him down or discredit him, especially to people of faith, on his belief in God. This is because he refuses to make a categorical answer when asked. According to him, he dislikes the question.

Jordan Peterson and Bishop Barron - Word on Fire

Click on the image to watch the podcast

The reason for this is that he believes that he does not have the moral right to claim belief in God. For him, proclaiming belief in God is not a trivial thing; not merely a matter of stating that he agree semantically with a set of doctrines. For Peterson, to say “I believe”—something we always do in the Mass—is a grave matter. Because this means one has to live by that claim—to commit to living a certain way, to behave in a certain way that is grounded to what one professes, and for him, he finds that claim “I believe” so demanding, stringent and all-consuming.

Unfortunately, much of our lives, behaviour and value system, especially in this era of self-affirmation, run on externals; where the operative but unspoken rule is ‘keeping up appearances,’ as Jesus in our Gospel today reminds us. In the parable, the second son has neither depth of conviction nor any sense of commitment except to himself. So he has no problem either in saying yes to his father or in refusing to follow up on his word, all in the same breath and quite matter-of-factly. He has no problem and even satisfied with doing nothing so long as he appears to comply with his father’s wishes and the artificial appearances of the father-son relationship are safeguarded, even if only superficially.

On the other hand, you have the first son who bluntly rejects the father’s request, maybe because he is not interested in appearances or self-righteousness—like Jordan Peterson—but has a sense of personal responsibility and his depth of commitment to the relationship drives him to repentance and ultimately follows his father’s wishes.

What the Gospel is trying to tell us is that what matters is personal integrity and a deep sense of commitment to our relationship with God. A commitment that translates into actions. This is why Jesus is so critical and reproachful to the religious and political leaders of his time to whom this parable is addressed. In Jesus’ words, prostitutes and tax collectors will be first in the kingdom of God. Despite their presumed unacceptable lifestyle, they do not operate out of pretence or performance but out of honesty—they are aware of their sinful actions but maybe can’t address them due to personal and social circumstances, yet they are always mindful that they need the mercy of God to be better. This is a clear contrast to those who, ignoring mercy, charity, justice, and human dignity, Parable of Pharisee and tax collector teaches us healthy autonomyare content and feel justified with lip service, empty rituals and judgemental self-righteousness.

It is relatively easy to be a yes-person of faith, living one’s claim by external practices—keeping up appearances, satisfied with rituals, self-centred prayer and devotions, but never allowing the depth of faith-relationship to touch us deeply and personally. Like the second son, our claim remains empty words peppering over an empty soul, with neither heart nor action.

On the other hand, to say “I believe” is, indeed, a demanding task, as Peterson puts it. It is painfully challenging to push beyond our “no’s” in life. And knowing fully well our weaknesses and brokenness allows the Father’s call to sink and impregnate our hearts and become actions for good and transformation. When this happens, when we, sinners, as Ezekiel said in the first reading, “renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest” then we truly take priority in God’s eyes ahead of any external, self-righteous “yes”, because the claim of such “no” people is an honest self-appraisal and commitment to a relationship of love.

The challenge is ours, brothers and sisters. As we proclaim publicly “I believe”, are we people who say “yes” to God, but then leave that yes the moment I say “Go” at the end of Mass, satisfied that we have done our part? Is the rest of our week fired by God’s presence or are we so self-righteous as to live merely keeping up appearances? Let us heed the words of St Paul in the second reading: “In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus.” The same Christ who proves his faith in the Father through obedient actions and not mere promise. For the true mark of a Christian is obedient action graciously and courteously given. ###

NB. I do not claim that my homilies are original. I usually use the many resources our Catholic faith offers to break open the Word of the Lord. Among these resources are the works of scripture scholars and the videos of Bishop Robert Barron. For this particular Sunday, I recommend the works of Fr Peter Verengo, SDB  and the following videos of Bishop Barron that I used in my reflection — Deacon Chris

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