Homily: 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I can’t remember the first time I heard that phrase, but I reckon I heard it in elementary school while I was standing before a nun and pleading my case for having failed to complete an item of my homework. I imagine that I was probably trying to explain how I had known that I was supposed to do it, but that I had forgotten it because of some other work that distracted me from it (which might have been a TV show…). And I imagine this nun (which was probably Sr. Maria Goretti) looking back at me with those steely eyes formed by a hard, yet grace-filled religious life, but which only thinly veiled her warm heart, hiding in the background, and I imagine she probably said these words to me, convinced as she surely was that the harsh truth was always better than relenting to protect a youngster’s fragile feelings. And I imagine that I probably walked back to my seat thinking “It’s not fair. I’m a good kid and I don’t cause trouble. And besides, I meant to do it! So why wouldn’t Sister give me a break?”
The harsh lesson proposed by this cliché phrase is at the heart of Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel reading. In it two sons are given a command to go out into their father’s vineyard to work. One flat-out refuses, while the other agrees. Both, then, have a conversion. The son who refused his father, regrets his refusal and turns to go out to the vineyard to work. The son who agreed to go out and work, then ignores that commitment and remains at home. “Which son did the father’s will?”, Jesus asks. “The one who actually went out to the vineyard to work” the chief priests and the elders correctly respond. It’s obvious to them, and probably to us, that when the father returns he’s looking for results, not good intentions; and so when he sees that the son who had refused him (and thus who had certainly upset him) actually went out to work, he was probably pleased (perhaps even more so, considering that he had been so upset with him) and when he found the son that had agreed to go out still sitting at home, I imagine that he was rather displeased (perhaps, even outright angry) because he had refused to do what he had promised his father he would do. Thus, the point of Jesus’ parable is clear: good intentions that do not result in actions are meaningless, while even a complete lack of good intentions can be redeemed if the good work is taken up, nonetheless.
To drive his point home, Jesus then turns to the chief priests and the elders and, with the same steely coldness only a battle-hardened religious sister could match, he tells them that tax-collectors and prostitutes—the most despised sinners of the day!—are entering the kingdom of God before them. In other words, he’s saying to them, “God is more pleased with them, than he is with you.” And why? Well, because when the tax-collectors and prostitutes heard the preaching of John, calling for a turn from sin and towards righteousness, they responded; but the chief priests and the elders did not. And even when they saw these heinous sinners turning away from their sin and taking up virtue (something, presumably, that the chief priests and the elders were unable to effect), these religious elite still refused to listen to John’s call. Thus, Jesus implies, they have condemned themselves.
“Whoa, Jesus, that’s kind of harsh. #chillout We pray, we fast, we follow the commandments, we keep the Sabbath and pay our tithes. #whatsyourdamage?” Jesus’ criticism is not that they weren’t religious enough, but that they had allowed their religiosity—“look at all the ways we’ve said ‘yes, sir’ to God”—to substitute for going out to work in the vineyard: to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien among them. Tax-collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, although they had refused God’s will in their sins, had turned from their sins and had taken up the work in God’s vineyard. Thus they are the ones doing the will of God, Jesus seems to say, because they are doing more than just agreeing to the idea of it, they are also doing it.
Now, were they doing it perfectly? Probably not. But they were doing it, instead of just talking about it. And that was enough for them. This is the message from Ezekiel that we heard in our first reading: “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.” And so we see that there is a flipside to the cliché: for if the road to hell is paved with good intentions (that is, with good intentions that do not lead into actions), then the road to heaven is paved with good efforts (even if those efforts end in failure). The tax-collectors and prostitutes that Jesus spoke of had lived so long in their vice that they probably only stumbled through their attempts to live virtuously. Nonetheless, they were trying; and that had them on the path towards heaven. The chief priests and the elders, however, had only their good intentions and so were sliding down the path away from heaven.
My brothers and sisters, as Catholic Christians, do we believe that it is enough to say “I believe”? No. Rather we know that to say “I believe” makes demands on our lives that go beyond mere religious observance; that, in fact, our religious observance is just the first step towards mission—missio—the “sending forth” to enact the Father’s will to bring mercy to all people: comfort to the sick, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, hope to the sinner, peace to the sorrowful. Does God expect us to be perfect in fulfilling this mission? No. Does he expect us to strive for perfection? Yes. But does he expect that we will fulfill it perfectly? No. Rather, he calls us to labor in his vineyard and he expects us to go. Woe to us if we stand here and say “yes, Lord, I will go” and then fail to do it. Ours will be the path away from heaven. If we give ourselves to labor in his vineyard, however—that is, to fulfill the mission to bring mercy to the world—then our path will be the narrow path that leads towards heaven: a path paved with the good efforts (the successes and the failures) of those who have gone before us.
Perhaps Sr. Maria Goretti’s attitude would have been different had I put an effort into my homework instead of ignoring it altogether. Perhaps having tried and failed would have given proof to my intention to complete it and, thus, won for me her mercy. Perhaps…
My brothers and sisters, Jesus, our Savior, came to bring us mercy, the same mercy we receive from this altar. May God find in us gracious recipients of his mercy: sons and daughters eager to labor for his harvest.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – September 28th, 2014