A Special Kind of Sinners
There is a class of sinners in the Bible which Jesus puts up as model members of his kingdom. They are model members because they readily enter his kingdom ahead of what common people consider as religious or holy persons. Jesus points them out to us in our Gospel reading today. He told the religious leaders of his day, the chief priests and elders, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you."
Today we do not consider prostitutes as model members of any church. They are considered as women or men (for there are also male prostitutes) who are not to be imitated because they perform what we consider as abnormal behavior. In some countries they are considered as criminals. In other countries, like Sweden, it is criminal to buy their services. In still other countries they are allowed to exist but there is a stigma of shame in what they are doing.
One Bible commentary says that prostitutes are the worst kind of women as the tax collectors are the worst kind of men. The Expository Notes describes them as "the vilest, the profanest, and worst of sinners." And yet Jesus puts them before us as model listeners to the preaching of God's word because they listened to John the Baptist and changed their ways.
Certainly Jesus does not want us to live like prostitutes and then to repent. What he wants us is to imitate their readiness to believe in God's word and change their ways.
Today prostitution is dubbed as the oldest profession in the world. But this dubbing happened only in 1889 when Rudyard Kipling wrote about it as the oldest profession in the world. In his short story about an Indian prostitute entitled ON THE CITY WALL after citing a verse from the Bible he wrote "Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma" who Kipling also described as a prostitute. Before this other professions, like farming, also claimed to be the oldest profession.
The Church throughout its long history has had three approaches to prostitution. The first is to accept it as a social reality, as something inevitable. Second, the Church has condemned those who profit from this trade. Thirdly, she encourages those involved in this business to repent and find a better way of living.
Some of you may be interested to know that two of our greatest theologians, doctors of the Church, were not in favor of abolishing prostitution by force. St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas did not favor the abolition of prostitution. St. Augustine was reported to have commented: "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust." For them it was a necessary evil. Their opinion was that if there were no prostitutes men would rape women and perform sex with animals.
We note something significant in the preaching of John the Baptist as mentioned by Jesus. Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, "When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did." This means that the preaching of John the Baptist was so powerful that it changed the lives of the tax collectors and prostitutes.
Today we miss that kind of preaching. Despite the thunderous preaching in our churches, conference rooms, auditoriums and television channels, there does not happen the conversion of the corrupt government officials who rob the poor of their sustenance and of the prostitutes who seem to keep on increasing.
Data gathered worldwide show that there are close to 42 million prostitutes around the world and very many government personnel are involved in some form of corruption.
Today we pause and ask ourselves the question: What kind of preaching converts people to Jesus like the preaching of John the Baptist?
We do not have records of John the Baptist's complete preaching. But we do have record of the few words which he preached. He certainly preached baptism as an expression of repentance for that is why he was called John the Baptist or Baptizer. We also have a record of his advice to certain groups of people, to soldiers, to Pharisees and Sadducees, to tax collectors. His message was one of changing one's mind and practices.
And we have a record of that famous sentence he uttered which we repeat every time we are about to receive the body and blood of Jesus: Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This sentence changed the lives of Andrew and John, of Peter and James. From being disciples of John they became disciples of Jesus, from being fishermen they became fishers of men.
In short, John the Baptist's preaching was powerful because it pointed to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And that is my purpose in all my homilies. I point the listeners to Jesus. As our Catechism teaches, "In catechesis 'Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God . . . is taught - everything else is taught with reference to him - and it is Christ alone who teaches - anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ's spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips." (427)
There is another detail in the comment of Jesus about his parable in our Gospel reading. Jesus said that the religious leaders did not believe in the preaching of John even when they saw the tax collectors and prostitutes repenting of their sinful lives. In other words the religious leaders (the chief priests and elders) hardened their hearts as they listened to John's preaching.
We can say then that preaching and teaching Jesus hardens the hearts of those who think that they are righteous, that they are just, that they are religious.
In our first reading we hear people saying, It is not fair that sinners, like corrupt government officials and prostitutes, who disobey God should go ahead of us in entering God's kingdom. But God through Ezekiel says that his ways are not like our ways. When a sinner repents he is accepted by God. This means we have to consider ourselves as real sinners so that we can repent.
In the second reading Paul sets up Jesus as our model, the only one who can change us into better persons. He says, "Jesus Christ is Lord". As the lord of our life he knows what is best for us. In fact he has given us himself as our very life so that we only allow him to live in and through us and we have his own happiness. Only Jesus can change the lives of corrupt government officials and prostitutes. Only he can truly abolish prostitution with the infinite love that he offers every prostitute.
We now put forth this question: Does Jesus want to end prostitution? He certainly does. And the only way to do this is to preach him to all. We pray then that there will be more who will preach Jesus, as John the Baptist did, so that more sinners will be converted and more righteous people will harden their hearts.
We bow our heads as we pray. Lord Jesus, you put before us the corrupt government officials and prostitutes of your day as our model of repentance. Give us more preachers like John the Baptist who will make sinners repent and who will also harden the hearts of those who think they are righteous. Have mercy on us, poor sinners. Amen.
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Note for the readers:
The Mass readings are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). This is where our Lectionary gets the readings.
NAB stands for New American Bible (before it was revised). This is the translation I use. Unless otherwise stated the text I use is from this translation.
AV stands for Authorized Version of the Bible. It is more commonly referred to as the King James Bible. It is the version most used in English literature, therefore it is the one known more by the English speaking world.