25 Sept, Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus warns that prostitutes and tax-collectors may be closer to God than the religious leaders. Our social or religious standing gives us no exclusive rights to the mercy of God. The parable of the two sons, neither of whom does what he says he will do, highlights the dictum that “actions speak louder than words.” Doing good actions is far superior to speaking fine words.
Ezek 18:25-28. God deals with every person according to one’s personal dispositions. He forgives the sinner who repents. He rewards the just who persevere in righteousness.
Phil 2:1-11. Paul summons his readers to true Christian unity. This unity can exist only if individual Christians imitate the humility of Christ who became obedient unto death.
Mt 21:28-32. The parable of the two sons reminds us that to really do the will of God calls for utter sincerity. Good actions speak louder than fine words.
– that we may never use our religion to exclude or despise others.
– for the courage to challenge all practices in our communities, that are racist or tend to marginalise others.
– for those in charge of social welfare, that they may discharge their duties with loving respect for those whom they help in our name.
– that we try as the Apostle says, to “consider the other person to be better than ourselves.”
Members Only (Liam Swords)
It is hard to believe now that until the early nineteen-hundreds bishops in Ireland were chosen only from the ranks of the aristocracy. Of course, there was a good economic reason. They had to be self-supporting. The people were too poor to pay them. But it was equally true in wealthy countries like France and Italy. There too Rome’s first requirement in a bishop was that he was from the ranks of the nobility. Indeed, it was customary for titled families, where the eldest son succeeded, to destine the second son for the church or the army. The great mass of the lower clergy, parish priests and curates, were excluded from bishoprics. Some of the trappings of aristocracy still survive in the church. Some at least of those “princes of the church” retain their bishop’s “palaces’, like to be addressed “Your Lordship” and offer their hand to have their ring kissed rather than for a friendly shake.
One of the last aristocratic appointments in Ireland was a member of the wealthy Dunboyne family. He was appointed Bishop of Cork, where he served with moderate success for twenty-three years. When his brother, Lord Dunboyne died, he abandoned the church, became a Protestant and married to insure an heir to the family. Ironically, one whose distinguished lineage Rome had deemed a priority should now consider the continuance of this line his priority. Ironic too that he should fail to produce an heir. Rome had lost a bishop while Dunboyne gained no heir.
The beginning of the end of the aristocratic world, which began with the dawn of history, came in the wake of the French Revolution. It decreed the abolition of hereditary titles and made all citizens equal in the eyes of the law. The world of the common man was brought into being and though it took another hundred years to come to fruition, the process was irreversible. Now, what titles remain are largely honorary. But old habits die hard, and not only in the church. A new elite has come to replace the old. Aristocrats have given way to plutocrats. Money occupies the place of lineage. The old exclusive world of privilege never really died. It only changed hands. The modern rich have all the trappings of the old nobility, save the titles. They provide themselves with security-guarded palatial homes, chauffeur driven limousines, exclusive clubs, and whatever else is needed to protect them from contamination from the common herd.
The need for exclusivity seems deeply imbedded in human nature itself. It has invaded even the sanctuary. “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” Belloc wrote playfully. The Jews were happy to exploit this divine oddity, excluding not only the rest of the world from God’s favour, but even the Samaritans who failed their rigid test of orthodoxy. Jesus did not bandy his words when he told their chief priests and elders, “Prostitutes and tax-collectors are making their way into the kingdom of God before you.” From the Jews as the chosen people to Calvin’s elect, to our own “outside the church there is no salvation’, exclusivity has always been a feature of religion. With the diminishing numbers of church-goers, and religion no longer a mass phenomenon, we may be more than ever tempted to claim exclusive rights to God’s mercy. Jesus’ warning to the Jews has a~ special relevance for us today. St Paul puts it simply: “Always consider the other person to be better than yourself.”
No Empty Promises (John Walsh)
When a good man commits sin, he will be punished, we were told in the first reading, and when a wicked man repents he will be saved. This looks much like stating the obvious, but obvious it was not for the Jews, who for a long time believed that the whole community became guilty when one person from within it committed sin, and that, moreover, the sins of parents were punished in their children. For example, when the Apostles saw the man who was born blind, they asked Jesus who was responsible for this, the man himself or his parents. And at the trial of Jesus, when Pilate, after washing his hands, said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your concern , the assembled onlookers all cried out, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” But as far back as the time of the prophet Ezekiel, over 600 years before Christ, God had been revealing to the Jews that all individuals are personally responsible for their own misdeeds.
This theme is developed further by Jesus in the gospel parable of the two sons, the meaning of which is quite clear. The Jewish leaders who had pledged obedience to God had reneged on their promises, whereas the tax-collectors and public sinners, who, at first, had refused to keep God’s commandments had now been converted by the preaching of John the Baptist. Generally speaking, people belong to one or other of two categories, (i) those whose profession is better than their practice, putting on a show of piety and fidelity, but failing to live out these; and (ii) those who, despite a rough exterior, are at heart generous and upright.
Promises are never a substitute for performance, nor can fine words take the place of good deeds. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Christ said (Jn 14:15). But our promise to do so, often, falls short of fulfilment, far more than we ourselves imagine. While we may be quite sincere in desiring to fulfil them, unknown to ourselves we slip into doing the exact opposite. The son who promised to obey his father was quite polite. “I go, sir,” he said, but obviously there was no sincerity in his response. It was not in keeping with his habitual frame of mind, which as a rule showed him shying away from any work. So the moment the words were out of his mouth they were forgotten.
In like manner, many of us can fail to keep our promises, and not from deliberate disloyalty, but because we have gradually acquired the habit of not doing so. It perhaps already has become part of our nature. By continually ignoring the dictates of our conscience, our will can reach the stage where it is incapable of responding, even though we deceive ourselves into thinking it can. So a person can say, “If the worst comes to the worst, if perhaps I have a serious health problem, or at least reached a stage where death is imminent, I can always make a confession and repent.” But so to quieten one’s conscience, by what might be described as doomsday planning, foolishly presumes that when the time comes one will be able to repent, despite repeatedly having refused to do so.
The fact that one refuses to express sorrow for one’s sinful ways now, should be a clear message that there is a greater difference than one imagines, between promising and the ability to carry out our promises. Once we have become willing slaves to sinful tendencies, Scripture warns us, “our iniquities like the wind will sweep us away” (Is 64:6). At every stage of our lives, deeds, not vain hopes or wishes, must be our watchword. Neither lip-service of God, nor being a Christian merely in name, will suffice to merit the eternal vision of the glory of God.
We are told in the Book of Genesis (15:6) that “Abraham put his faith in God, and on account of this faith he was considered to be free from sin.” The question is what is faith, and how can people be certain that they have faith. Some would say that faith lies in the awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the infinite holiness of God, being conscious of one’s own weakness and inability to attain salvation, longing for redemption by Christ, and living for him and loving him with all one’s heart. But all these emotions do not constitute faith, however necessary and admirable they may be, because they are emotions, or simply good thoughts, unless they are acted upon. And if they are not accompanied by good works they are quite dead. “As the body without the spirit is dead,” Sacred Scripture warns, “so faith without good works is also dead,” good works entered into with cheerful and joyful commitment.
Obedient Faith (Patrick Devine)
All three readings set out to teach that we has freedom in our choice of options and, therefore, we are accountable for how we behave. What happens in the world is not just a playing out of a drama already scripted in advance. Physiological, psychological and sociological influences there can be – as those in advertising well know, yet our free-will remains intact. Above all, we are free to change course so that, whatever our past might be, however great our faults, we can begin anew. This is not to deny that God has always the last word, but his interventions. which at first might appear simply as a limitation of our options, are, in fact, rather in the nature of preventive and corrective action to save us from disaster and steer us on our proper course.
The parable of the two sons emphasizes our inner sentiments as distinct from our external behaviour in the exercise of responsible freedom. Furthermore, it is concerned less with the intellectual aspect of our decision-making than with the overall attitude of faith that should form the basis of our whole life-style. What it says is simply this: our conduct must be inspired by our faith.
The son who addresses his father as “Lord” has only a faith based on formulae, in externals. We are reminded of Mat 7:21 where the same title, Kurios, occurs in “Not every one who says “Lord, Lord’
People who have this shallow kind of faith make facile promises to God and one another without really committing themselves to deliver. What we need is a faith that will link our whole lives to the will of God so that our conduct will always be in conformity with God’s will for us. This is not always easy, and at times our first word to God may be No,” as in the parable, but a genuine effort will be sure to follow. Even though our difficulties may force us to say a reluctant “No,” our attitude can yet be one of obedience. To believe is to obey! But doesn’t obeying mean loving?
Proven By Deeds (Henry Wansbrough)
The point in common to the first and last readings, which presumably the compilers of the Lectionary had in mind when they put the reading from Ezekiel to this Matthew passage, is conversion. In the Old Testament passage the wicked man changes his ways, and in the Gospel the sons both do the opposite of what they originally say. But I think this is to misunderstand the import of the Gospel passage: there the real point is that lip-service and the mere profession of obedience is not enough; in each case there is not so much a change of mind but a deceptive exterior, the appearance of stubbornness combined with co-operation, and the appearance of co-operation combined with stubbornness. We all know those sometimes endearing, sometimes infuriating people who are willing and generous but do not, for various reasons, wish to show it, though probably Matthew is moving more within the Jewish problematic than on the psychological plane.
The second reading, however, contains one of the richest hymns about Christ’s redeeming work that we have. It is composed from two intertwining theological ideas (both, unfortunately, partially obscured by the Jerusalem Bible translation), Christ as the Suffering Servant of the Lord, and Christ as the Second Adam. The original hymn is best set out in three four-line stanzas, the first two describing Christ’s humiliation and the third describing his consequent exaltation, so:
Who, being in the form (image) of God
did not think it something to-be-snatched-at to be equal to God
but he poured himself out taking the form of a servant
becoming in the likeness of man
and being found in structure as a man
he humbled himself becoming obedient to death.
Here there is obvious correspondence or contrast between the individual lines of each stanza (as in italics.) It is fairly clear how the hymn is based on the idea of the Suffering Servant. The structure, passing from humiliation to exaltation, is found also in Isaiah 53. A number of the key ideas are present, the expression “servant,” “poured himself out,” the importance of humility and above all of obedience. So the author, an unknown early Christian, probably of Jewish background, sees the redeeming Christ as fulfilling the figure of the Servant of the Lord who was humiliated and killed for our sins.
The other strand, that of the second Adam, is perhaps not so obvious. In other letters of Paul (Romans and First Corinthians) he views Christ as the second Adam, the leader and progenitor of a redeemed humanity as Adam was of a lost humanity, a new man in whom all redeemed humanity is contained as all lost humanity was contained in the first man. By his obedience he undoes the disobedience of Adam. So in this hymn Christ contrasts with Adam: both were made in the image of God; but, whereas Adam sinned by trying to become like God, Christ did not think equality with God something to be snatched at. Whereas Adam sinned by his proud independence, so Christ undoes this sin by his humble obedience.
It is then, whichever strand one takes, primarily in terms of obedience, humble submission to God’s will, that Christ’s saving work is seen in this hymn. By putting it where he does in his letter Paul makes a slightly wide application, for he tells his readers to have this “mind of Christ Jesus’ so that they may be humble and open to each other, self-sacrificing without competitiveness, and obedient to each others wishes.
Walking the Walk (Jack McArdle)
Today’s gospel points out the difference between talking the talk, and walking the walk. It tells us that what we do is more a test of what we are, than anything we say.
I met a friend of mine last week, and he was full of enthusiasm for a new venture he had undertaken. He is a relatively young man who has a particularly vibrant sense of the spiritual. He wanted to do something to help others, by way of saying thanks to God for what he and his family had. He went along and offered his services to the St Vincent de Paul Society, an offer that was eagerly snapped up. He enjoys the work, and he feels really good about his decision, It is interesting to note that he first got the idea several months before that, when a colleague said that he was thinking about joining the SVP! So far, for his colleague the thought has not been translated into action.
Today’s gospel is simple, and it is easy to get a lesson from it. In another gospel Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey me.” The gospel is a call to action now. One young man told Jesus that he had to bury his father first, another had bought a farm, and he had to inspect it, etc., etc. Excuses, excuses, excuses! The excuses are funny, if they weren’t serious. There is no hint that the first guy’s father is sick. When his father dies twenty years from now, there will be somebody else to bury. The second man would hardly have bought a farm first, and then go to examine it! If I don’t want to do something, I’ll always find an excuse to avoid it.
There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. There is no scarcity of ideas, but there can be a real scarcity of goodwill to put those ideas into practice. The Christian message is intended to galvanise me into action. The best way to avoid doing something is to talk about it long enough. Jesus wants decisions rather than discussions. There is such a thing as a moment of grace. It is just like the story about Bartimeus in the gospel. He was a blind man, sitting by the side of the road, he heard the commotion, and asked what was happening. Someone told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. Immediately Bartimeus grasped the moment, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” he shouted again and again. The people around him tried to silence him, but there was no way he was going to let this moment of grace pass. He continued shouting until Jesus stopped, called him over, and healed him. There’s many a moment in our every day when “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
Jesus really incensed the Jews when he told them that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter heaven before them. He explained how this was so. The tax collectors and prostitutes listened to John the Baptist, and changed their ways, while Jesus’ listeners continued to be stubborn, and refused to listen to him. At another point in the gospel, he warned them that, just because they could claim Abraham as their father, it didn’t give them an automatic claim to anything. If anything, they would be judged all the more severely, because they had a religious background, were familiar with the scriptures, and they should have recognised his teaching as coming from God.
Response: “Faith without good works is dead,” St James tells us. What we believe is evidenced through our actions, not our words, Jesus asks us to ensure that our “yes” is “yes,” and our “no” is “no.” He calls on us to make a decision, and to act on that decision. “Come, follow me,” he asked the apostles, and they left their boats and followed him. Sheep will follow the shepherd, while goats have to be driven by the goatherd. Today’s gospel is speaking to us today, and our response must be made today.
Like the Jews, we cannot claim that all is well just because we associate ourselves with a particular Christian denomination. I can have a baptism certificate in my pocket, and not be living a Christian life. I can fully accept the concepts of Christianity as an ideology, and not believe in God. Jesus came to lead us to the Father, not to give us some nice little ideals and ideas for living.
Christianity is not about producing nicer people with better morals, I could be a pagan, and be a nice guy. It is not about prayer and fasting. I could be a Muslim, and do all of that on a regular basis. It is about a person, Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father, into the fullness of the life of the Trinity. His message calls for obedience to his teaching and thinking. He came “to do 222 AND THAT’S THE GOSPEL TRUTH and to teach.” Our vocation is also about doing and teaching. We are not all called to be evangelists, to stand on a box in Hyde Park, preaching the gospel. However, we are all called to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. Our Christian life, lived in obedience to his teaching, is our message.
Jesus has some harsh words for the religious leaders of his day. They refused to believe John the Baptist, and to obey his call for repentance. By so doing, they rejected the message, and so lost their priority as God’s chosen race. The public sinners, whom they condemned and marginalised, will enter heaven before they do. They heard the call, but refused to respond; therefore the onus for such unbelief rests with them. The same is true for us today. We can never claim that we didn’t know. We are guilty of what used be called “culpable ignorance.” If I refuse to respond, I become irresponsible. There will come a day, however, when I will be held responsible.
At the moment of death, I will come face to face with God, naked, and with no place to hide. The denial, excuses, and delaying will be over, Might I suggest the following: In my reflection, I can imagine that moment, and try to visualise what it might be like. I can do that every single day. Hopefully, it will motivate my response now, while I still have time. I can spread out the canvas of my life right now, and allow the Spirit of truth to reveal to me what is to be seen.
When I reflect on the two sons in today’s gospel, how do I see myself relative to each of them? I may find a little bit of each in me, and that is not bad. The idea is that I continue to renew my commitment to Jesus, and I continue to open my heart to the fullness of his message. I depend on the work of his Spirit within my heart to lead me into all truth. With my human resources alone, I can easily have many blind spots. My mind and my eyes can be selective in what I see, and in what I accept as true. I cannot rely on human wisdom, because there is some sort of basic rebelliousness within us, because of original sin, and it is only the Spirit of truth who can lead me into truth, and guide my feet into the ways of peace.
Maybe I could do with a change of attitude towards those who seem to be outside the community of believers. I may see them in this way, because I compare myself to them, and they are seen to be lacking by comparison. Have they had the chances? that I’ve had to hear the message of the gospel? Indeed, have they had any spiritual formation at all? They certainly will not be condemned or rejected by God, just because they have never heard the message. If I have heard the good news, and have an opportunity to put it in practice, and to live it, this should lead to compassion, understanding, and tolerance, rather than pride, judgement, and bigotry. I should examine my conscience, as I hear Jesus speak about the tax collectors and the prostitutes in today’s gospel.
An Afro-American was standing outside an evangelical church in one of the southern states of the US. It was many years ago, and the church was for whites only. Just then Jesus came along, and asked him what he was doing there. The man told him that he loved listening to the singing, and that was why he was standing outside the door listening. He went on to explain that, because of his colour, he could not enter the church, Jesus smiled wryly, and said, “I know how you feel, I myself have been trying to get into that church since it was opened!’
First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28
Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.
Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of Go the Father.
Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.