Don’t Just Check Off the ‘God Box’
User’s Guide to Sunday, Oct. 1
Sunday, Oct. 1, is the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Mass readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Philippians 2:1-11 or Philippians 2:1-5; Matthew 21:28-32.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus was addressing the religious leaders and religiously observant of his day. He calls out three common sins of the pious. Let’s look at each of these in turn, remembering that although they are not exclusive to the religiously observant, they are considered in that context.
The text says, “A man had two sons.” They are very different yet also quite similar. “A man had two sons” is another way of saying that the sons had the same father. Yes, we all have a connection we cannot deny, whatever our differences. Why emphasize this? Because it is too easy for us to try to sever the link we have with one another. We can be very tribal, rejecting others. Perhaps they are of a different political party, economic class or race. We divide, but God unites: “A man had two sons.” Yes, they were different, but he was father to them both. He loved them both; he spoke to them and called them his sons.
A second “sin of the pious” is leaping to the conclusion that someone is irredeemably lost. Many of the Scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant of their day, had done just this with a large segment of the population.
Rather than going out and working among them to preach the word and to teach the observance of the Law, many of them simply labeled the crowds “sinners” and dismissed them as lost.
But Jesus, in today’s parable, speaks of the first son who said “No” to his father but afterwards changed his mind and went. The point is that we should be very careful not to write people off, even those who appear locked in very sinful patterns or who seem hostile to God. The example of Sts. Paul and Augustine should certainly give us hope. Don’t think that anyone is a permanent member of the vineyard either. We all know of former parishioners and family members who later drifted from the faith. Scripture says, “Some that none would consider wear a crown. The exalted often fall into utter disgrace. … Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known” (Sirach 11:5-6, 28).
The parable speaks also of an elder son who said he would do his father’s will but did not actually do so. He was outwardly respectful and religiously observant — a decent sort of fellow. In the end, though, his respect to his father was only cursory.
His lack of follow through demonstrates a great danger to the religiously observant: giving God “lip service” — those who praise the Lord, sing a hymn, shout “Hallelujah” and say “Amen” on Sunday, but come Monday, what happens?
What about us? Will we obey and go to the vineyard of obedience? Will we forgive those who have wronged us? Will we show generosity to the poor? Will we be chaste and compassionate? Will we love our spouse and children? Will we speak the truth in love, evangelize, and act as God’s prophets? It is too common for the religiously observant person to reduce the faith to rituals and, once the rituals are observed, to check off the “God box.”
Now, none of us are perfect disciples, but there is little that is more destructive to evangelization than phony, lip-service Christians, who give the outward appearance of obedience and religiosity but with no substance behind it.