by Fr. Tommy Lane
It is rather shocking that Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” (Matt 21:31) Notice to whom Jesus was speaking, the chief priests and elders of the people (Matt 21:23). That makes it even more shocking. Of course Jesus was talking about tax collectors and prostitutes who had listened to his preaching and had converted. We can think of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) who was a chief tax collector. One of the Twelve Apostles, Matthew (Matt 9:9) also called Levi (Mark 2:13-14; Luke 5:27-28), had been a tax collector. The Scriptures do not explicitly say that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute (Luke 6:36-50 does not mention her) but Luke tells us that Jesus expelled seven demons from her (Luke 8:2) so certainly Luke intends us to understand that she had lived what we might describe as “a very bad life” before she met Jesus. On the other hand the chief priests and elders of the people had not converted. So in the parable that Jesus taught, the tax collectors and prostitutes were the first son who at first said no to his father but then thought better and obeyed his father and worked in the vineyard. They had lived a life disobedient to God in the past but when they heard the preaching of Jesus they converted. Like the first son they said no at first but later said yes. The chief priests and elders of the people were like the second son in Jesus’ parable who said “Yes sir” but did not obey his father. They heard the preaching of Jesus and knew the Scriptures but their hearts were closed and they were not responding to God. They were like the second son who said yes but in fact did not obey his father.
Why were tax collectors and sinners able to open their hearts and respond to the preaching of Jesus while the chief priests and elders were not? Perhaps it is because the tax collectors and sinners had reached rock bottom and realized that the lives they were living were empty and meaningless. The tax collectors were well known to be greedy. They paid taxes for the full year in advance to Rome which they would later collect from others but Rome never checked if they were overcharging the tax they collected from others. Everyone suspected they collected much more tax than they paid to Rome. Surely the sinners and tax collectors realized their lives were meaningless and they received respect from Jesus which they did not receive from any of their contemporaries. In Jesus they found life as it was meant to be. Jesus offered hope to the tax collectors and sinners, hope they never before had. When they converted the words of God to the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading were fulfilled,
…if a wicked man, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins which he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (Ezek 18:27-28)
If Jesus were talking to us now we can imagine that he might say, “The drug addicts, the alcoholics, the gang members, are making their way into the kingdom of God before you.” That would be rather shocking but if they really allowed Jesus to touch their hearts and convert while we only knew about Jesus but did not know him personally in our heart that would make a lot of sense. Those who lived dark lives in the past and have undergone conversion experiences may be living life at a much higher level of meaning than many of us now. Having experienced the depths of misery and the meaningless of their former life they have probed very deeply the meaning of life and found that only in friendship with God does life have value. Having spoken with some of these people and knowing them I am extremely impressed with them. Likewise many of those who convert and enter the Catholic Church know the faith at a much deeper level than “cradle Catholics” because they were searching for answers in their own church denomination and did not find the answers but found the complete answer in the Catholic Church.
Many of those who allowed Jesus to touch their hearts and convert have shared their stories in recent years. (conversion stories) One example is John Pridmore who shared the story of his dark past and his conversion in his book From Gangland to Promised Land. He described the moment of his conversion like this,
…I sat alone and found myself thinking how my life was completely messed up. I felt very depressed and empty…Then I heard what I can only describe as a voice. It was telling me the worst things I had ever done…It was the voice of God, my conscience. The breath was going out of me. It was as if I was dying, and an incredible fear gripped me. I’m going, to hell, I thought. I fell to my knees, and tears began to well up in my eyes. ‘Give me another chance!’ I cried.
Suddenly, I felt as if someone’s hands were on my shoulders and I was being lifted up. An incredible warmth overpowered [p85] me and the fear immediately evaporated. At that moment I knew — really knew, not just believed — that God was real.
…Then I did something I had never done before: I
prayed. ‘God, up to now, all I’ve done is take from you in my life and now I
want to give.’ What I can only describe as an awesome feeling of love consumed
me.…Then I knew for the first time in my life that I was loved by God. Up until
then, I had always thought I was worthless and it didn’t matter whether I lived
Looking back on his life later in his book he wrote,
Looking back across my life — a journey, you might
say, from gangland to promised land — I’ve come to understand that we just need
to ask Jesus to reveal himself in our hearts and let us know that he’s real and
that he loves us. I did, and he replied. To anyone who is sceptical about this,
I would simply say, just do it. If someone had said this to me when I was
involved in all that criminal activity, I would probably have laughed and told
them they were living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Now I know that Jesus is real, not
through reading books or studying theology, but from personal experience.
John Pridmore was like the first son in Jesus’ parable; in his early life was said no to work in the vineyard but then underwent a conversion, came to know Jesus, and said yes to work in the vineyard. Do you know Jesus or do you only know about Jesus? Pridmore wrote,
When I was with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx, Father Bernard told me about the time he went to work with some poor people in a village in the mountains of northern America. He was deeply impressed by one old man who, despite having no running water, no electricity and little food, was so joyful.
‘How come you’re so happy when you have so little?’ asked Father Bernard.
‘Because I know Jesus,’ replied the old man.
‘But I know Jesus as well.’
‘No. You might know about Jesus in your head, but not
in your heart.’
Do you know Jesus or do you only know about Jesus? If we only know about Jesus while those who were drug addicts, alcoholics, gang members, sex addicts, have converted and know Jesus personally then surely Jesus can say they are making their way into the kingdom of God before us. Do you only know about Jesus or do you know Jesus in your heart? Have you met Jesus? If not, tell him you want to meet him.
More homilies for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday Year A
Related Homilies: first reading Decide to overcome sin
second reading: having the same attitude as Christ
Stories about conversion