Homily 26thSunday OT 1st October 2023
Throughout the Gospel there is one type of person that invariably seems to provoke Christ’s anger, that never seems to merit a good word from Christ, only his scorn and his condemnation. And that is the group of people the Gospel authors usually refer to as the Pharisees. But when Christ criticises, he is not talking about a political party or a social class. Rather he is talking about an attitude, a way of life, one that seemed very often to be typical of the pharisees.
It was an attitude that was characterised by two vices – hypocrisy and self-righteousness. A hypocrite is a person that is more concerned with a good image than a good conscience. A person who works very hard at playing a role, creating an impression, but who really holds very few deep convictions. And a self-righteous person is a hypocrite who takes himself/herself very seriously, a hypocrite who has really become cut off from the possibility of growth because of the belief that the role that is being played, the image that is being built, is in fact something worthwhile and valuable.
So it is the superficiality, the moral and spiritual emptiness of the pharisees, that offended Christ and the fact that they had become so smugly self-satisfied with that emptiness.
And that sets the scene for this Gospel reading. In the parable that Christ uses, in the contrast between the first and second son, he really compares the morality of the pharisees, the self-righteous hypocrites with that of the sinners, and finds it wanting.
Compared to the sinners, who recognised their faults and tried to do something about them, the static, unmoving pharisees were dead, dry, empty creatures. Now, obviously enough, it is not the sin of the idolaters and prostitutes that Christ is praising, rather it is their awareness, their effort at growth, even if that effort is unsuccessful for a while.
It is almost as if to say that it is not so much our sin that Christ judges us, but rather on how satisfied we are with our sin. How complacent we are, how attached to it we become.
In his association with sinners, Christ saw beyond their sin and saw what the pharisees couldn’t or wouldn’t. In their attempts to remake their lives, in their repentance, Christ saw goodness and virtue.
I hope there is comfort in that for us. Or there should be. Just as Christ praised and blessed with his company, saw virtue in the halting, faulting effort at growth of the idolaters and prostitutes, so will he in our own. That all means there is only one real sign of hopelessness in our lives, and that is to give up, to quit trying, to be satisfied with what we are.
The only things that should ever make us despair of the company of Christ is our refusal to accept it. We do not have to make ourselves perfect. We can’t. Only Christ can do that. But he will. As long as we keep trying to make ourselves better.