As I watched a young boy play a popular video game, I was surprised at how many times his character could be killed and come back to life. He’d fall into a fiery pit,get chomped by alligators, and be crushed by a boulder, but it didn’t seem to matter. It fact, the boy thought it funny to make these things happen to his character! He explained that although his character might lose points, it couldn’t really be killed, no matter what he did. Another adult with me said, half in jest but half seriously too: “What is this teaching our kids?” She was worried that perhaps they’re being taught that actions don’t have consequences.
That actions do have consequences is a primary point of today’s first reading, from Ezekiel. Simply put: Sin is punished and virtue is rewarded, and it’s up to us to choose between them. Evidently people back then needed to be reminded of this. But perhaps we need reminding too. These days we place a great deal of emphasis on God’s mercy. As well we should, because God is merciful! But there’s a danger that emphasizing God’s mercy can lead us to take it for granted, something the Church has traditionally referred to as the sin of “presumption.” When we presume upon God’s mercy, we figure we can do whatever we want, and it just won’t make a difference what we do. Kind of like the character in the video game. We think: God is so forgiving, that at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what we do.
But what we do does matter to God. Consider today’s gospel story. Jesus told a parable of two sons. One said initially that he would do his father’s will, but then didn’t do it, while the other son said at first that he wouldn’t obey, but then changed his mind and did. When he explained this parable’s meaning, Jesus raised a few eyebrows, because he said that “tax collectors and prostitutes”- the obvious public sinners of the day- were entering the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders, who considered themselves to be decent religious people. The former heard God’s call to change their ways, while the others did not, as they thought there was nothing to change. They were presumptuous.
Most of us, I imagine, probably consider ourselves to be decent religious people. That’s why we need to listen to Jesus words today, because they’re directed at us. It’s easy for us to look down upon the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of our day and think: “Boy are their lives a mess!” We compare ourselves to them and conclude that, all things considered, our lives are pretty much in order. And maybe they are. But we need to be careful, because it’s easy when we think this way to fall into presumption and conclude that since we’re fundamentally good people, it doesn’t really matter what we do, because God is so good and forgiving. Like the chief priests and elders in today’s gospel, we become deaf to God’s call to continued conversion.
In all fairness, it’s sometimes easier for the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of the world to hear that call. It can become very obvious to those stuck in serious sin that something’s not right with their lives- especially if they hit rock bottom and realize there’s nowhere else to turn but to God!
With us, we may not feel such a need for conversion. In fact, we may actually feel rather good about ourselves. One of the myths of modern pop psychology is that feeling good about one’s self is a sign of health. But that’s not always the case. It seems that that’s how the religious people in today’s gospel were feeling. That’s why they were so shocked and angry when Jesus suggested that they weren’t as close to God’s kingdom as they thought they were.
The truth is, as taught by the saints down through the ages, that that the closer we get to God, the more aware we become of our own sinfulness, and our distance from God. This means that if we aren’t aware of our sinfulness, we might not be as holy as we think we are. In today’s responsorial psalm, the author recalled his sins and cried: “Remember your mercies, O Lord.” Today, maybe God is saying to us: “Remember my mercies, O my people.”
Now, this isn’t meant to make us hate ourselves or become discouraged. Instead, God is calling us to action, repentance, and continued conversion. God doesn’t want us to be lulled into complacency and presume upon his mercy. Instead, he wants us to accept our need for change.
To do this, there are three things we might do. First, we can consult a good examination of conscience and use it regularly. This will help us become more aware of areas of sinfulness in our lives that we may have been overlooking, or never were aware of in the first place. Second, we can ask others to help us. As the sixth century spiritual writer St. John Climacus once observed, “God has arranged so that no one can see his own faults as clearly as his neighbor does.” Third, we can ask God to help us, because God knows us better than we know ourselves. We can pray to God: “Show me where I need to grow. Reveal to me what I need to change. Help me to see myself as you see me!”
And what does God see? Yes, he sees sin and brokenness. He sees someone who needed redeeming, and who needs guidance and grace. But more than this, he sees someone he loves. Someone for whom he has plans. Someone he created to become a saint. Someone with whom we wants to spend all eternity. God is indeed merciful! And he wants us to receive his mercy. Just not take it for granted.
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/092511.cfm