Did I hear Jesus correctly? Did he really say that scandalous people might get into the kingdom of heaven before me? We go to mass every Sunday, many of us everyday. We receive communion. We pray the rosary. We pray before the Blessed Sacrament. We are vowed religious. We are vowed married people. We are faithful widows and faithful widowers who pray everyday. We serve the sick and the lonely. During Lent, we make sacrifices. So when public sinners get into the kingdom before us that is not fair!
Well, according to the missionary and evangelist, Elizabeth Elliott, “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.” In other words, good intentions do not get us into heaven. And that’s part of today’s lesson. We might want to ponder an important question: Whom do we resemble in the parable of Jesus? The one son who said “yes” and then did not go out and work? Or the second son who said, “no” but changed his mind because he regretted his answer? Or, as it says in the original, “…afterwards he repented and went.” Whom do we resemble? Now is the time to search the soul and remember: The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.
Good intentions do not grant us membership in the kingdom. And piling up good intentions as Christians is like walking backwards, so says Soren Kierkegaard. The reason that the horrible sinners in society may get into the kingdom of heaven before us is because they have more to gain and nothing more to lose. Morally at rock bottom, when caught and confronted with their sin, people repent. Everyone confesses when caught with the goods. And everyone gets another chance with God. But what about those of us who work at it day in and day out? How do we keep our sacrifices on the altar?
Humility! We need humility. Now there’s a Benedictine virtue found in chapter seven of the Rule of St. Benedict. Humility is like a ladder, he says, and there are twelve steps. I don’t know about you but I hate heights, even on a ladder. Above the third step, I get very nervous. Yet if we do not climb, then we will descend with pride. According to St. Paul, if we want to prevent our living sacrifices from creeping off the altar we need the humility of Christ. Though he was God, Jesus did not lord it over others. He humbled himself. The word literally means, “low, level.” Like leveling a mountain, Jesus became one of us…he became lowly; he came down to our level.
So if we are like the son who says yes and yet we continue to do our own thing, we commit the sin of pride. No wonder our living sacrifices keep creeping off the altar. For example, we may want to repair a relationship with a resident with whom we fought, but we never got around to it. But we have good intentions. We think about assisting a sister who can’t do the things that she used to do around the monastery, but we also find ourselves thinking that someone else should help her. But we have good intentions. We know that the Gospel tells us to pray and work for peace; and, we know that the catechism instructs us to work for the poor and to assist people in need, but the corporal works of mercy are someone else’s problem (never mine). But we have good intentions. How is this thinking different than the son who said yes to working in the vineyard, but then rested on good intentions? Everyday, God asks you and me to go and work in HIS vineyard. The vineyard is the hallway, the dining room, the beauty parlor, the community room, the mailroom, our residence and our living quarters. Be careful, because when we refuse to go, remember that God also includes those who really need salvation…those we least expect to get into the kingdom of heaven. This is what it means to be last when we really had a shot at first place.
Just a short illustration about humility, about how to become low: it is not about politics. This story is about Christian humility. The President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter are members of the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. On certain Sundays, Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Being the 39th President of the United States and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the church is always packed with congregants and visitors to hear him speak. However, often in the church bulletin, members of the congregation are assigned church tasks. One such Sunday, at the bottom, the bulletin reads: Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.
Our task at this Sunday mass is to keep the living sacrifices from creeping off the altar. Good intentions must become right actions. The body and blood of Christ will never creep off the altar because Jesus said yes to his Father and lived his life on our level! If we want our sacrifices to remain on this altar, then people need to see our “yes!”
The Rev. Fr. Dr. T. Becket A. Franks, O.S.B.
The 26th Sunday