God is at work because tax collectors (extortionists) and prostitutes are changing their way of life.
Jesus compares the people he’s speaking to – the Jewish religious leaders – to a son who says he’ll go and work in his father’s vineyard but then doesn’t go. Jesus accuses them of partaking in religion but in a way that doesn’t lead them into the kingdom of God (the kingdom of God is nothing more than God ruling your heart).
So here Jesus reveals the purpose of religion; that our hearts are ruled by God. This is the most important detail about every person’s existence; that each enters the kingdom of God.
On the other hand Jesus compares the tax collectors and prostitutes to a son who says to his father; “no, I will not go and work in your vineyard” but afterwards thinks better of it and goes, and the proof is clear for the Jewish religious leaders to see – the very public sinners were changing their lives; Zacchaeus declares to Jesus that he’ll pay back those he’s cheated four times the amount (Luke 19:8) and the woman “who had a bad name” sat weeping at his feet before kissing and anointing them with oil (Luke 7:36-38).
Jesus says this alone should have been enough to convince the Jewish leaders that God was working through him and indeed through John.
Here Jesus gives us the ultimate test to establish if God is present or not in a person’s life – “you will be able to tell them (true disciples) by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). Where God is present certain types of behaviour follow, where God is not present other types of behaviour follow. But who decides what’s in and what’s out?
The present generation has great difficulty with some of this and wants to change it – much of it a sure sign of living outside the kingdom. Changing this is the spiritual equivalent of changing the laws of physics! It’s impossible.
When a man (or woman) begins to enter Gods kingdom (remember the definition – God ruling our hearts) he discovers the reality of sin, he doesn’t need convincing, more importantly his own sin begins to bother him, and if he continues to make his way into Gods kingdom he will change and be changed. It’s actually entry into the kingdom of God that decides what’s in and what’s out. The more you enter the more the Catechism makes sense.
This is what happened to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The compassion of God didn’t leave them where they were – and it didn’t want to leave the religious leaders where they were either. Too often today people understand the compassion of God to mean the acceptance of sin!
The compassion of God is grace or graces that change us inside (interior) and as we are changed inside we are changed outside (exterior) – our behaviour changes from the inside out. It’s precisely because we’re becoming a new person that our lifestyle choices change.
The religious leaders should have known this, they should have known that wherever the kingdom of God is present, there you find repentance and conversion. That they didn’t recognize this means that they had not entered the kingdom of God themselves.
This is a problem that persists to this day – too many speak of religion and God from a position outside the kingdom of God. The result is the blind leading the blind!