Catholicism is not a club for the perfect. Our Lord tells the chief priests and scribes, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you!” Catholicism is a religion for repentant sinners, not a club for the perfect.
It is easy for us to imagine that the good people are here and that everyone else is out there. It is easy for us to craft for ourselves a church, or a parish, of respectable people with nice and neat lives. But this would not look like the Church that Christ began to gather to Himself during His earthly ministry: St. Peter, the first Pope, who denied Him three times, and whose faith failed even as he saw the Lord right in front of Him; St. Paul, the persecutor of the Church; St. Dismas, the good thief, a criminal in the middle of being executed. A woman caught in adultery. The early Church was so full of undesireables that the Romans frequently lambasted the Christians for being the dregs of society. It was most certainly not a club for the perfect, nor should it be today.
At the same time, though, this does not give us permission to empty the Gospel of its moral message. The tax collectors and prostitutes who are entering the Kingdom of Heaven are repentant sinners who have given up their sinful ways in order to heed the call of the precursor, John the Baptist, to follow Christ. A Gospel without any moral implications, without any demands placed upon us would be too easy – it would not be worthy of the Cross of Christ.
Any presentation of Jesus that leaves out the real and serious demands He places upon His followers is a false Jesus. Otherwise, He would be guilty of a double standard. This shallow, too-easy understanding of Jesus would have it that He accepts the tax collectors and sinners, yet castigates the scribes for their judgementalism. Is judgementalism a greater sin than fraud or adultery? Of course not! The difference, then, is not in the sins themselves, but in the sinners. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” St. Paul tells us. The difference lies in one group of sinners who recognizes and repents of their sins, and another group who do not.
In the parable that our Lord tells the chief priests and the scribes, He is realistic. Note the difference between the two sons: One says he will do what he is told, but does not. Maybe you have had a son or daughter like that! The second son initially refuses to do the father’s will, but later does. It is interesting that our Lord does not describe the third possibility: the son who promises to follow the father’s will and then does so perfectly. Christ omits this possibility, because there is no human son or daughter who fits this perfect mold. Again, St. Paul tells us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
There is, though, One who has not fallen short of the glory of God, the one Son who did perfectly obey the will of the Father. St. Paul tells us today how, exactly, He perfectly followed the will of the Father: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is the antidote to the too-easy Christianity emptied of moral requirements: Christ crucified. If the Gospel has no moral requirements, then what is the point of the Cross? To be Christian is to follow Christ, and it is precisely the moral requirements of the Gospel that enable us to follow Christ even there, to likewise humble ourselves to the point of suffering.
Holy Mother Church has arranged the Scriptural readings for this Sunday in an interesting way. The Gospel has this strong moralizing element, which is foreshadowed in the first reading. And yet, these are paired with St. Paul’s beautiful recounting of the essential message of salvation. Morality, after all, is not the center of the Gospel – that is Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, which we call His Paschal Mystery. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in a striking way early in his papacy: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Here we see these two important aspects held together in their proper balance: Christianity, following Christ, is not just about following rules. It is a lived encounter with the same Christ who died and rose from the dead in and through the Church that Christ founded. At the same time, though, this encounter with the Christ who died and rose for us is not just like meeting someone on the street. It is an event that ought to change our lives, to “give life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Morality is not the center of the Gospel, but it is the way that each one of us, in our day-to-day lives, is able to participate in Christ’s saving death and resurrection. Living the moral teachings contained in the Gospels is the way in which our encounter with Christ “[gives] life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
The prophet Ezekiel tells us: “if [the sinner] turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.” We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Those who will enjoy eternal life with God in Heaven, those who shall preserve their lives, are not the ones in the club for the perfect. They are the ones who know that they are sinners, and do something about it.