This was how Jesus summed up the parable of the two sons. The tax collectors and prostitutes presumably represented that first son, who said he wouldn’t work for his father, but then changed his mind and did. Sinners who repent, Jesus suggested, are closer to God’s heart than do-gooding, self-righteous holy people. As he saw it, the scribes and Pharisees were more like that second son, who mouthed the right words but didn’t give his heart to the father’s vineyard.
The leaders saw their fidelity to keeping the Torah, the Law, in minute detail, as evidence that they were more righteous than anyone. But Jesus had a different angle – for him what mattered most was how they responded to the revelation he brought, which he said was in line with what John the Baptist taught, and what the prophets for centuries before him had foretold. “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
He knocked the religious leaders for their refusal to recognize that God offered righteousness through his Son, a redemption of the heart much deeper and longer-lasting than mere law-keeping could ever bring. They thought they’d be first in line by virtue of how well they stood in line! Jesus suggested that God was more interested in those who genuinely recognized their faults and God’s mercy. If the leaders had acknowledged their need for God’s mercy, he would have liked them more.
Our culture is filled with people who have not been raised with church or a knowledge of God or God’s transforming love. In our age, churches are often seen as smug, rigid, prejudiced, oppressive, not to mention dull and irrelevant.
We need to be committed to our churches not because it’s the right thing to do or will “get us into heaven.” We need to help turn them inside out, making them incubators for new life, spiritual growth, transformation and healing. We need to make it easy for people with no church background whatsoever to find meaning and life in our midst. That means rethinking the way we worship, give, govern, preach – everything. What would you do differently at church to make it comfortable for the non-churched to encounter God's love?
I’ve always been amazed at the Iftars I attended during Ramadan. (Iftar is the meal at day's end in that season of fasting.) Though most of the Muslims present had had no food and water since daybreak, and they had provided most of the food, the leader always told his congregants to go last in the food line, to let us non-fasters fill our plates first. This is the kind of grace to which we are called.
As far as we know, everyone who wants to be a part of God’s worldwide, time-and-space-encompassing community of love, is welcome. We’ll know we’re steeped in God's love when, no matter how long we’ve been in line, no matter how hungry we are, we’re delighted to let someone get to that feast ahead of us. There will be plenty, and to spare.