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Prostitutes Will Enter the Kingdom Before You

Gospel Commentary for 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, SEPT. 26, 2008 ( “Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: ‘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 afterward 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.'”

The son who says “yes” and does “no” represents those who knew God and followed his law to a certain extent but did not accept Christ, who was “the fulfillment of the law.” The son who says “no” and does “yes” represents those who once lived outside the law and will of God, but then, with Christ, thought again and welcomed the Gospel.

From this Jesus draws the following conclusion before the chief priests and elders: “Truly, I say to you, even the publicans and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you.”

No saying of Christ has been more manipulated than this. Some have ended up creating a kind of evangelical aura about prostitutes, idealizing them and opposing them to those with good reputations, who are all regarded without distinction as hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. Literature is full of “good” prostitutes. Just think of Verdi’s “La Traviata” or the meek Sonya of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”!

But this is a terrible misunderstanding. Jesus is talking about a limited case, as it were. “Even” the prostitutes, he wants to say, are going to enter the Kingdom of God before you. Prostitution is seen in all its seriousness and taken as a term of comparison to point out the gravity of the sin of those who stubbornly reject the truth.

We do not see that, moreover, idealizing the category of prostitute, we also idealize that of publican, which is a category that always accompanies it in the Gospel. The publicans, who were employees of the Roman tax collection agencies, participated in the unjust practices of these agencies. If Jesus links prostitutes and publicans together, he does not do this without a reason; they have both made money the most important thing in life.

It would be tragic if such passages from the Gospel made Christians less attentive to combating the degrading phenomenon of prostitution, which today has assumed alarming proportions in our cities. Jesus had too much respect for women to not suffer beforehand for that which she will become when she is reduced to this state. What he appreciates in the prostitute is not her way of life, but her capacity to change and to put her ability to love in the service of the good. Mary Magdalene, who converted and followed Jesus all the way to the cross, is an example of this (supposing that she was a prostitute).

What Jesus intends to teach with his words here he clearly says at the end: The publicans and prostitutes converted with John the Baptist’s preaching; the chief priests and the elders did not. The Gospel, therefore, does not direct us to moralistic campaigns against prostitutes, but neither does it allow us to joke about it, as if it were nothing.

In the new form under which prostitution presents itself today, we see that it is now able to make a person a significant amount of money and do so without involving them in the terrible dangers to which the poor women of previous times, who were condemned to the streets, were subjected. This form consists in selling one’s body safely through cameras. What a woman does when she loans herself to pornography and certain excessive forms of advertisement is to sell her body to the eyes if not to contact. This is certainly prostitution, and it is worse than traditional prostitution, because it is publicly imposed and does not respect people’s freedom and sentiments.

But having denounced these things as we must, we would betray the spirit of the Gospel if we did not also speak of the hope that these words of Christ offer to women, who, on account of various circumstances (often out of desperation), have found themselves on the street, for the most part victims of unscrupulous exploitation. The Gospel is “gospel,” that is, “glad tidings,” news of ransom, of hope, even for prostitutes. Indeed, perhaps it is for them first of all. This is how Jesus wanted it.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32.

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