Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
Some background on the historical/theological context for that particular passage is in order. 🙂
Jesus is talking with the chief priests (priests [a hereditary office passed from father to son] who worked in the Temple] and the elders of the people (conservative [in the sense of wishing to preserve the religious / political status quo] businessmen and community leaders). He tells a story about a man with two sons. He asks the first son to go and work in their vineyard, and the son declines. Afterwards, the son changes his mind and does the work. The second son, upon being asked by his father for some assistance, indicates that he will go out and help. He then changes his mind and doesn’t go help at all.
The comparison would be clear to those hearing Jesus for the first time, as well as those reading this Gospel in the 70’s – Jesus (as well as the author(s) of the Gospel) is/are making a comparison between traditional Jews (who clung to the Temple during the time of Jesus and who moved to the synagogues after the destruction of the temple) and “Christian” Jews (whose Jews who kept their religious and cultural way of life, but filtered it through the lens of “Jesus is the Messiah”; followers of the Way is, as far as we can tell, the description they gave themselves). The verdict is that Jewish followers of the Way are like the first son – they initially reject the Father’s offer, but then have a change of heart and enter into the service of the Way. The traditional Jews accept the covenant made with Abraham, but they reject the new covenant offered by Jesus, even when they see others accepting faith in Jesus as normative.
There’s good theology here, and some excellent reflection by Matthew’s community on Jesus’ message and on their experience of arguing with other Jews as to how best to live out their faith. However, I like this passage for a more personal reason: it’s a good reminder to me that no matter how much I know and practice my faith, humility should be foremost in my mind. I am not the Messiah, I am not perfect, and I am not the final arbiter of my own salvation. As Paul asked others to do, I must work out my salvation in fear and trembling.
Or, as I read long ago in a small book on prayer: If you start to feel advanced in the ways of prayer, think again. God’s life runs deeper then you can ever imagine.
I pray for the grace to humbly stand before God and humanity and know that as much as I believe in my faith, God sees to the heart of the matter – and I may very well be unworthy of spending a timeless eternity in the presence of the Name.
Blessings & Peace,