Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Pharisees and Reaching Out to Sinners

“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. *Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you." (Matthew 21:28-31).

I think what troubles me the most about the new conservative dissent against the Pope is how much it is based on the fact that he is reaching out to the public sinners with compassion, rather than judgment.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the Church should be liberal (and, for that matter, neither is the Pope). But as I see how many Catholics columnists -- even those I ordinarily approve of -- taking an attitude of disappointment, annoyance, even anger -- against the Pope, I find myself struck with a sense of deja vu. It's a sense that here in the 21st century we're seeing the same attitude that the New Testament described in the First century -- that there are a group of religious people, seeing the (real) sin of people being reached out to, but can see no further than their sin.

Now Jesus knew the prostitutes and tax collectors were sinners. He also knew the Scribes and Pharisees did not commit the sins they did. But that wasn't the important part. The important part was Jesus loved both the Pharisee and the tax collector and wanted to save them both. 

To do so, He took different approaches based on what each needed to hear. To the prostitutes and tax collectors, his approach began with the love of God... letting them know God loved them and wanted them to turn back and seek the Lord.

To the scribes and Pharisees however, he needed to shake them out of their idea that because they didn't sin as the prostitutes and tax collectors did, they didn't need to repent.

In Mark 2:16-17, we have this interesting exchange:

Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors and said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard this and said to them [that], “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

They were scandalized because Jesus did not deal with them as they thought he should.  Instead, He engaged them where they were. He chose to dine at the house of Zacchaeus. He told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11).

Now we know these lessons. But do we take them to heart? I wonder.

I mainly wonder how we might react if Jesus said to us, "The liberals and the homosexuals are entering the kingdom of God before you."

That would probably be as shocking to us as “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you" was to the Pharisees.

I think of these things as Catholics are scandalized by Pope Francis. In the time since he became Pope, he has spoken gently to those estranged from the Church and admonished us who might be too complacent about our relationship with God.

But speaking to those estranged gently is not to sanction their sins. Jesus ate with sinners. But He didn't say it was OK to remain in their sins. Prostitutes and tax collectors may have been entering the kingdom before the pharisees, but that doesn't mean they remained prostitutes and dishonest tax men.

Likewise, Pope Francis calls sinners with compassion. But he doesn't say they can remain sinners.

Pope Francis seeks to emulate Jesus Christ. When we respond, let us be careful not to emulate the Pharisees.

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