Adapted from a homily by Fr. Tommy Lane
Isn’t it rather shocking to hear Jesus say, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
Of course, Jesus was talking about the tax collectors and prostitutes who had listened to his preaching and had had changed their lives.
· Fitting that description might be Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector.
· Also, One of the Twelve Apostles, Matthew also called Levi who had been a tax collector.
· And what about Mary Magdalene?
o The Scriptures do not explicitly say that she had been a prostitute but Luke tells us that Jesus expelled seven demons from her so certainly she had lived what we might describe as “a very bad life” before she met Jesus.
So, in the parable that Jesus taught, we can identify the tax collectors and prostitutes as the first son who at first said no to his father but then thought better and obeyed his father and worked in the vineyard.
They had lived a life disobedient to God in the past, but when they heard the preaching of Jesus they changed.
Like the first son they said no at first but later said yes.
On the other hand, the chief priests and elders of the people were like the second son in Jesus’ parable who said “Yes sir” but did not obey his father.
They heard the preaching of Jesus and knew the Scriptures but their hearts were closed and they were not responding to God.
Why were tax collectors and sinners able to open their hearts and respond to the preaching of Jesus while the chief priests and elders were not?
Perhaps it is because the tax collectors and sinners had reached rock bottom and realized that the lives they were living were empty and meaningless.
In Jesus they found life as it was meant to be.
Jesus offered hope to them, hope they never before had.
When they converted to this new way of life, the words of God to the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading were fulfilled,
if a wicked man, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins which he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (Ezek 18:27-28)
If Jesus were talking to us now, we can imagine that he might say, “The drug addicts, the alcoholics, the gang members, the adulterers, the liars, the thieves, and the dishonest are making their way into the kingdom of God before you.”
That would be rather shocking to hear, but if those just mentioned really allowed Jesus to touch their hearts, turned toward Him, stopped their sinning, while we only knew about Jesus, but did not know him personally in our heart, that would make a lot of sense.
Those who lived dark lives in the past and have undergone conversion experiences may be living life at a much deeper level than many of us here today.
Having experienced the depths of misery and the meaningless of their former life they have probably probed very deeply into the meaning of life and found that only in friendship with God does life have value.
Likewise, many of those who enter the Catholic Church later in life know the faith at a much deeper level than a lot of us “Cradle Catholics” because they were searching for answers in their own church denomination, or in life itself, and did not find the answers, but found the complete answer in the Catholic Church.
One example is John Pridmore, now a catholic evangelist, who shared the story of his dark past and his conversion in his book From Gangland to Promised Land.
He described the moment of his conversion like this:
“I sat alone and found myself thinking how my life was completely messed up.
I felt very depressed and empty…
Then I heard what I can only describe as a voice.
It was telling me the worst things I had ever done…
It was the voice of God, my conscience.
The breath was going out of me.
It was as if I was dying, and an incredible fear gripped me.
I’m going to hell, I thought.
I fell to my knees, and tears began to well up in my eyes. ‘Give me another chance!’ I cried.
Suddenly, I felt as if someone’s hands were on my shoulders and I was being lifted up.
An incredible warmth overpowered me and the fear immediately evaporated.
At that moment I knew — really knew, not just believed — that God was real.
…Then I did something I had never done before: I prayed:
‘God, up to now, all I’ve done is take from you and now I want to give.’
Then, What I can only describe as an awesome feeling of love consumed me.…
I knew for the first time in my life that I was loved by God.
until then, I had always thought I was worthless and it didn’t matter whether I
lived or died.”
(From Gangland to Promised Land 84-85)
Later in his book and looking back on his life he wrote:
Looking back across my life — a journey, you might say, from gangland to promised land — I’ve come to understand that we just need to ask Jesus to reveal himself in our hearts and let us know that he’s real and that he loves us.
I did, and He replied.
To anyone who is skeptical about this, I would simply say, “just do it.”
If someone had said this to me when I was involved in all that criminal activity, I would probably have laughed and told them they were living in cloud-cuckoo-land.
I know that Jesus is real, not through reading books or studying theology, but
from personal experience.
(From Gangland to Promised Land 174)
John Pridmore was like the first son in Jesus’ parable; in his early life he said no to work in the vineyard, but then underwent a conversion, came to know Jesus, and said yes to work in the vineyard.
Pridmore further wrote:
When I was with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx, Father Bernard told me about the time he went to work with some poor people in a village in the mountains of northern America.
He was deeply impressed by one old man who, despite having no running water, no electricity and little food, was so joyful.
‘How come you’re so happy when you have so little?’ asked Father Bernard.
‘Because I know Jesus,’ replied the old man.
‘But I know Jesus as well.’
‘No. You might know about Jesus in your head, but not in your heart.’
(From Gangland to Promised Land 175)
So, what is the message for all of us here today?
Well, maybe it starts with a question?
The question is:
Do I know Jesus, do I truly know Him, or do I only know about Him?
If those who were drug addicts, alcoholics, gang members, and even prostitutes, have turned away from sin and now know Jesus personally and intimately, and if we only know about Him and have not stopped our sinning, then surely Jesus can say they are making their way into the kingdom of God before us.
Let us ask ourselves that very important and revealing question once again:
Do I only know about Jesus, or do I truly know Him personally and in my heart?
Have I met Him?
Do I often spend time with Him?
If not, tell Him that you want to meet Him, to get to know Him, to feel His presence in your life.
And then carefully listen for Him in the quiet of your heart, in your conscience, and in those special daily encounters with other people, but most importantly…..
Humbly, open your heart and allow Him to live within you.
It is never too late to become… like… the first son.