Scripture Readings

Sept. 27, 2020 – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-9; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

Esse quam videri. “To be rather than to seem.”

It’s part of a quote from Cicero’s essay On Friendship written all the way back in 44 B.C., where he reflects that, “Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so.”

Is that not the truth? And in the “age of the image” we currently inhabit, Cicero’s age-old wisdom becomes only more glaringly true.

Why learn Latin when you can use Google Translate and make it look like you know original Cicero quotes from memory?

Why volunteer at your own parish when, with the touch of a button, you can much more easily virtue-signal about helping people to hundreds, thousands, millions of “followers” who will never know what you’re actually doing with your time on a given day?

Want whiter-looking teeth? No need to improve your oral hygiene. Instagram’s “Inkwell” filter takes care of that. Want a sharper, chiseled-looking face? No need to exercise or eat right. Just apply “Mayfair.” Wrinkles coming on? Don’t let that be an invitation to grow in maturity or deepen in your understanding of what actually matters in life. Prolong the shallow definition of your own self-worth with the “Rise” filter.

Special thanks to for these deep insights on how to look like a better person. But if you’re interested in actually becoming a better person, look no further than this week’s Sunday Gospel.

The chief priests and elders of the people have just been busy keeping up the appearances of having no problem with John the Baptist. In point of fact, they can’t stand him, but because his prophetic preaching was popular with the crowds, they hide their opinions and were even brazen enough to receive his baptism disingenuously. (Matthew 21:23-27)

John had some choice words for them in Matthew 3:7-12. But Jesus confronts them with a parable of two sons. One son rejects his father to his face at his invitation to work in his vineyard, but in the end the son goes to do the work. The other son gives dutiful lip-service to the father’s face, but in the end he shirks the invitation.

Quite obviously, it is the son who responded to the father’s invitation in deed rather than in word who in fact did his will and grew in virtue. In case they missed the analogy, Jesus makes his point clear: “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes (— the ones genuinely responding to John’s call to repentance —) are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

God is not looking for poster children. He’s looking for saints. And saints are the real article. They don’t virtue-signal while beating their hardened hearts. They go scrub the toilets and pour their miserable hearts out to the Lord, begging for his merciful love, and knowing that he longs to pour it out in abundance. They understand that it is indeed Good News that we can be utterly and continually transformed in Christ.

In this humble “way of [actual] righteousness,” (Matthew 21:32) they do not seem to be what they are not. And so the real thing slowly is able actually to emerge. And when the real thing is seen, it has a beauty of its own — one that Insta can’t really duplicate.

It “takes the form of a slave,” “emptying itself,” and “becoming obedient to the point of death.” (Philippians 2:7-8) For miserable sinners like me … like all of us, “To be rather than to seem,” is a lifelong odyssey, out of the prisons and caves of our own hearts and into the pure light of being poured out for the sake of others. It’s what we’re actually made for, and it’s what brings real joy. Let’s beg for the grace to act on it.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What filters do you use to maintain false appearances?
  2. How do “being authentic” and “conversion” coincide in the Christian life?
  3. What action can you take to grow in a specific virtue this October?