16th Week after Pentecost
Usually a parade is the most obvious thing in the world. Streets are closed. Bands play lively music. People in colorful costumes march down the street. Crowds on the sidewalks cheer and wave.
Yet Jesus calls our attention to a strange parade we might not recognize. This is a parade that makes its way into the kingdom of heaven. The band plays loud and strong. Angels and saints applaud and shout. But you and I may fail to even notice this parade, for it is a strange one.
There at the head of this parade, in the place of honor, are some unlikely candidates. There are traitors, who sold out their own people by collecting taxes for the occupying power. There are prostitutes, who sold their bodies to whomever would pay the price. There are all sorts of unsavory characters, the kind that decent people would not choose to associate with.
Jesus points out this parade. He says it's headed right through the front gates of the kingdom of heaven. And with a slight smile, he points to the supposedly tainted folks who are out there in front.
Just what is going on here? Why do we have notorious sinners heading up the parade and the better sort of people bringing up the rear, if they are there at all. One thing that's not happening is an endorsement of doing the wrong thing. Selling out your own people is still wrong. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but never suggests that we should betray our neighbors. Selling your body is still wrong. He certainly leaves no room for exploiting others or allowing yourself to be exploited.
No, what's going on in this strange parade is something different. It's no endorsement of wrong behavior. It's no jettisoning of basic rules. What the parade celebrates is the splendid reality that we do not save ourselves.
The truth is that even keeping the rules can lead us astray if we end up with the attitude that we make ourselves good and righteous people. To believe this is a dangerous deception. It can cause us as much grief as if we dive headlong into living a self-centered life.
When we believe ourselves to be good and righteous people by our own efforts, then we ignore a large part of who we are. We overlook our dark side, what some psychologists call the shadow. The shadow then acts on its own, swallows us up, and takes others along with us. This can happen without us even recognizing it.
The people responsible for the execution of Jesus were not social misfits, but the movers and shakers of society. In contrast, saints through the ages have demonstrated an acute sensitivity to their own sinfulness. For them the light is intense enough that they recognize their own faults.
Jesus points out to us that traitors and prostitutes lead the parade through the kingdom's gates because despite popular misunderstanding, the kingdom is not a reward for good behavior it is a gift of God’s grace.
Those who make a mess of their lives may become aware of their shadow. They encounter their dark side. They recognize the battle which rages within them. And from this struggle, it is just possible that there emerges a more genuine person, someone who sees that we can never be righteous on our own, but that we depend on the mercy and grace of God.
We appear to be confronted with two alternatives. One is a code of rules by which we attempt to make ourselves into our own gods. The other is a life of license that says there are no rules. But this picture is dangerously incomplete. Neither moral code nor immoral life has the last word.
The moral code informs us about what is right and what is wrong. However, if we live a moral life, we may confuse morality with salvation. We become satisfied with ourselves, judgmental toward others, and closed off from challenges that come to us ever new from the hand of God. We deny the battle raging inside ourselves. We believe we have won by our own efforts, but in fact we have lost, because we have deceived ourselves into thinking we are our own savior.
The immoral life can indeed destroy us for it has a hardening effect that proves spiritually fatal. Yet for others it can lead, despite itself, to intense spiritual striving and even to new and unexpected birth. The illusion of self-sufficiency snaps, and all that remains is a cry for help. What feels like a collapse becomes a major turning point in the struggle for authentic existence.
At the start of his public ministry, Jesus calls people to repent, to change the way they think of themselves. This message comes as no surprise to traitors and prostitutes. They know what they've been doing. They're simply relieved to hear that there is hope of something different.
The problem cases are those of us who believe the demand for a change of heart is meant for somebody else. We may think we have this morality thing down pat. And perhaps we do! But we're in a sad state indeed if we prefer the self-satisfaction of armchair righteousness and refuse to get up and walk in the wild parade that moves through the kingdom's gates.
There's much to be said for an assurance of God's mercy. The Holy One can be trusted. But there's much to be said as well for the abandonment of our self-righteousness and a willingness to take part in the struggle that goes on inside us.
In itself the shadow is not evil. It becomes a problem when we refuse to welcome the light, when we refuse to integrate the shadow with the rest of who we are. Kept hidden, the shadow becomes a poison. Brought to the light, it appears for what it is: a treasure. God wants no half-people for saints, people with flashy surfaces, but no interior life. God would have us be whole; God would have us be holy.
We must surrender our notion of righteousness to God and be at least a little suspicious of our own behavior. We must desire deeply a new perspective which brings with it our willingness to walk with our neighbors through open gates. And if we do, we may find ourselves at the head of a strange parade! Amen.