Grace is everywhere
Today’s readings: Ez. 18, 25-28; Phil. 2, 1-11; Matt. 21, 28-32.
In religion classes, people used to be categorised as theists, atheists and agnostics. Agnostics were those who tick the ‘don’t know’ box on the question of God’s existence.
For many, this stands for lack of belief, but for many others, as Robin Le Poidevin writes in his short introduction to the subject, agnosticism is the result of intellectual struggle, not an unwillingness to engage with that struggle. In believing, there is always an element of wrestling with God.
This introduces us to two types of believers represented in today’s parable of two sons. The issue underlying Matthew’s parables of the Kingdom is that belonging to God’s kingdom is not the same as belonging to a people, culture or religion. Jesus is setting different standards for belonging and different criteria for authentic belief.
The parable hammers in the truth Jesus wanted to convey to his times, and which is still so relevant in our times, about the borderline between belief and unbelief, or what constitutes one a believer and another an non-believer.
For so long, a believer was normally a church-goer, someone who basically adhered to the rules of the club. The Council of Trent in the 16th century was very precise on these requisites in the wake of the disarray at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Today’s parable makes us ask the question whether it makes sense to bank on some sort of membership or adherence of people who inwardly are not there.
St Augustine, as quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in his interview-book Light of the World, said: “There are many outside who seem to be inside, and there are many inside who seem to be outside”. Pierre Hegy, a professor emeritus of sociology, recently wrote in his book Wake Up, Lazarus! that “We easily accept statistics when they reinforce what we believe; when they do not, they are simply inconvenient”.
There is so much that can make us change direction in life. As believers what mostly counts today is not to which institution you belong, but rather what solid ground you have under your feet. Life has become too shaky, and even our institutions and tenets of belief are continuously being put to question.
This is what Karl Rahner, a leading 20th century German theologian, probably meant when he said that the Christian of the future would either be a mystic or no Christian at all. There is no half-baked Christian.
We live in times when faith lacks the cultural support. The culture we live in used to provide sure points of reference which today are no more.
They can only mature in us inwardly through personal experience. In some sense this is the aspect of personal responsibility which the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading is highlighting at a time when the collectivity was doomed to unbelief because of the exile trauma of Israel.
We need today to explore without fear the borderlands between belief and unbelief. Similarly we need to show disdain to the so-called marshmallow middle ground where the only rule is that you avoid saying what you really think and believe.
To quote Pierre Hegy again, this goes for both insiders and outsiders. Insiders may feel a strong sense of identification with the institution to the point of defending it even against legitimate criticism. Outsiders air their feeling of abandonment and betrayal, tending to always be critical and even hostile. Both could be missing the point.
In the gospel, Jesus is addressing the law-abiding Jews who strictly observed the law in its details. Yet he was being quite offensive both on a personal level and on the level of the establishment. He took the risk because nobody, no institution could ever claim exclusivity where God is concerned.
The way of faith is always wide open because fundamentally it rests not on outward signs or requisites but on the inward grace which knows no borders. “Grace is everywhere,” writes Georges Bernanos at the very end of The Diary of a Country Priest. As if to say, grace has no boundaries and God cannot be conditioned in his way of acting.