Jesus (speaking to the chief priests and elders of the people) said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
There’s this one little (unspoken, but certainly implied) message in this story of Jesus’ encounter with the chief priests and elders of the people during his last days before his crucifixion that teachers and preachers commenting on this story often don’t tell you: the chief priests and elders get into God’s Kingdom too—they just don’t go first!
It occurs to me that this is a really reassuring message for us who are trying to live doing the right thing in this continuing pandemic. As I write this devotion in late September, the cases in Idaho are on the uptick again and the national and world news tells of new surges in infections around the nation and in other countries.
Most of us know by now the “best practices” of keeping healthy ourselves and protecting others: wash your hands often, wear face coverings when you leave your home, maintain 6 feet plus distance when out in public, and avoid large gatherings of people. We may be tired of it, but it’s our best way to live for others and ourselves in this time.
Daily, of course, we encounter people who are not following these practices and some who openly flaunt them, either denying the severity of the virus or making up their own set of facts to explain what is going on. How are we to “do the right thing” in the midst of all of the “noisy distractions” that call out to us to ignore the best information science has for us and get on with living our lives?
(Before I answer that question, an aside here. As followers of Jesus who try to live faithfully, we try every day to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbors as ourselves. Yet, also we know that regularly we fail to live fully this way and need God’s forgiveness. Jesus forgives us and welcomes us back to the community of God’s people. It works that way every day! Thanks be to God!)
Now, back to the question in the paragraph above. We have to make a judgment here as to how “doing the right” thing in this pandemic fits into the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leaders, but ultimately it seems to me that no matter how you interpret it, you come out in the same place in the end.
The Jewish leaders thought they were living and teaching the right way. Jesus did not object to the good they were teaching and doing. He showed them how God called them to open their hearts to others more, and when they did, they’d discover God’s love for them more deeply than they had known it before. But in the end—even if they never budged an inch—they’d be welcomed into God’s kingdom, but just not first!
When it comes to living during the pandemic, living daily as a Christian, being a trusted employee, relating as a good neighbor, sharing friendship, being a loving and faithful marriage partner, and many other significant life commitments and relationships, it’s always best to try to “do the right thing.” At the same time, we all experience the burden of rightness when many other people don’t seem to care so much. We mess up, we act selfishly, we forget, we take our eyes off the goal—we may even come to times when we have acted wrongly in ways that have life-changing consequences.
Jesus is always here to forgive us and welcome us back. But when we’re tempted to take a shortcut that will likely lead to more pain and brokenness, remember the “do the right thing” pharisees and elders of the people. Jesus welcomed them too…eventually!
Gracious and welcoming God, thank you for being forgiving and loving to us always and never giving up on us. When the burdens of “doing the right thing” seem too much for us, lighten our way and send us persons who will encourage us.
When we mess up and act against your ways, forgive us and show us the way you would have us live. Amen.