Sunday of Week 26 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

Today we are presented with another challenge by Jesus to the religious leaders of the people. It consists of a parable about two sons whose father operates a vineyard. He tells one to go and work there. The lad refuses, but later changes his mind and goes. The second one is also told to go. He agrees to do so, but in the end he does not. Jesus asks:

Which of the two did the will of his father?

They all agree that it was the one who at first would not go, but later did so.

In case there was any doubt, Jesus then clearly spells out the meaning of his story. Tax collectors and prostitutes, perhaps the most despised of all people from the religious leaders’ point of view, were making their way into the kingdom of God before the chief priests and the elders. In their eyes, it was a shocking and dreadfully insulting thing to say. As proof of what he says, Jesus reminds them that they refused to believe John the Baptist who “came to you in the way of righteousness” when he called people to repentance. On the other hand, the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe. And, even after that, the priests and elders refused to do so. They were there watching, but felt that John’s words did not concern them.

In the eyes of the priests and elders, the idea that tax collectors and prostitutes should enter the kingdom before them was outrageous. The very idea that such evil and immoral people should take precedence over the religious leaders in God’s eyes would be totally unjust. It might have helped them to be reminded of what the prophet Ezekiel says in today’s First Reading:

…you say, the way of the Lord is unfair.

The Lord replies:

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.

And the Lord also says:

…when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.

Here Ezekiel is saying exactly the same thing as Jesus and it is something we all need to listen to carefully. It means, for instance, that a person who had lived a good life for a long time, but in the end turned bad would “die in his sin”. On the other hand, someone who had lived a very immoral life for a long time, but turned round and accepted God at the end would live.

Jesus is applying this, first of all, to his listeners. They and their ancestors had a long tradition of following God’s Law, but now, faced first with John the Baptist and then with Jesus, the Son of God, they refused to listen. On the other hand, Gentiles who had lived godless or idolatrous lives for generations are now turning to Jesus and opening themselves to his teaching and his healing power.

Again, as we have said elsewhere, it is not for us today to pass judgement on the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ own people. Rather, we have to see what this incident is saying to our own Christian lives here and now.

Two messages
There are two messages coming out loud and clear. On the one hand, we can never be complacent about our relationship with God. It is possible for any of us at any time to find ourselves falling away from our commitment to Jesus and to his Gospel. And God always accepts us where we are. If we are in union with him, things are well; if we have by our own choice become separated from him, he accepts that too. His love and his grace are always available, but they can be rejected and spurned – and we can “die in our sin”.

On the other hand, no matter how far we have strayed from God and Jesus in the Gospel, no matter how depraved we have become, it is never too late to turn back, and we can be absolutely sure that a warm, no-questions-asked welcome is waiting for us.

We remember the parables in Luke’s Gospel about the lost sheep and the lost (prodigal) son. It is the meaning of the dialogue between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection – “Do you love me…?” Three times Peter had, in pure fear, used oaths to deny he ever had any connection with Jesus. Now, repentant, chastened and humbled, he comes back. Not only is he forgiven, his mandate to lead the community remains intact. Peter’s repented sin, far from being a disqualification, will make him a far more understanding leader:

Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep”.

No punishment?
Is there no punishment for the sinner then? We can say that there is indeed. The sinner basically punishes himself. The punishment is built into the very sinfulness. This is what Ezekiel is saying today:

Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair?

It is not altogether uncommon to hear people complain that God is unfair to them. But God responds that a good person who violates his own integrity to do something evil dies in sin, precisely as a result of the evil he has done.

Our self-seeking, our hate, anger, aggression, violence, jealousy, resentments, our greed and avarice…all lead to isolation, loneliness, hostility with others and often to physical and mental stress and breakdowns. Sin, which is a refusal to respond to God loving us, brings its own inevitable punishment. Our sins often leave wounds which take a long time to heal. God does not need to punish us; we do that very well by our own choices.

Real source of sin
However, we need to identify where sin really lies. Sin is not just a violation of a rule or a law. It is a violation of our very nature. It is not just in the violation of certain rules and commandments. To be away from Sunday Mass is considered a sin? But why? Where is the sin? To act with violence, to steal, to fornicate, to lie, to be avaricious are regarded as sins. But why? Are they sins because the Church says they are? Because the priest in confession says they are? Because parents or other authority figures say they are? Because a list in a prayer book says they are?

Something is sinful because it is wrong, it is evil. Something is sinful because it denies love and respect for God and for the dignity, the rights and integrity of others. They are the sins not only of Catholics, but of anyone who does them. God, Truth and Love do not belong to any religion. And sin, as a violation of our needed relationship with God, Truth and Love, brings nothing but pain and loss. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Dialogue of the deaf
Today’s gospel is clearly directed at the religious and civil leaders of the people in Jesus’ time. They spoke much about God and, in particular, how God was to be served by a strict observance of the Law. But it is clear they did not have the spirit that Jesus was communicating through his life and teaching. The spirit of love, compassion, caring and forgiveness for the weak and vulnerable. They also heard the teaching of Jesus but made no effort to carry it out. They excused themselves by challenging Jesus’ legal authority to do what he was doing. Because Jesus did not fit into the parameters of their legal world, they could not classify him and they rejected him.

On the other hand:

…the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

They certainly were not keeping God’s Law. They had said No to his commandments many times. But then they met Jesus and they experienced a radical transformation (Greek, metanoia) in their lives. They listened and they responded.

The chief priests and the elders are like the second son in the story. They say ‘Yes’ to obeying God but they do not listen to Jesus, the Son of God, or follow his instructions. The sinners, the outcasts of both Jewish and Gentile society, are like the first son. They do not obey God’s commands, they commit many sins, but later they accept the teaching of Jesus and become his followers.

What about me?
What is clear from this Gospel and from the First Reading is that God is primarily concerned with my present relationship to him. As far as the past is concerned, God has a very short memory…in fact, we might say he has no memory at all! This is the “injustice” of God that Ezekiel mentions. We remember the man who was crucified with Jesus on Calvary. He was a major criminal, a brigand, a robber, perhaps a murderer. There, in the very last moments of a life of murder and mayhem, he asks pardon and forgiveness:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.

Jesus’ reply comes instantly, without any qualifications whatsoever:

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
(Luke 23:42-43)

How unjust! How unfair! We are reminded of last week’s parable where the workers complained about the latecomers who were given a full wage.

However, it would not at all be a very good idea to think that I could live a life of total selfishness with the intention of making a last-minute deathbed conversion. Apart from the riskiness of such a gamble, such a decision would be quite short-sighted.

It is a totally false idea that to base one’s life on the Gospel is somehow to step outside the mainstream of human living and do something unnatural or ‘supernatural’. For believers and non-believers alike, this is probably the saddest misconception of all. On the contrary, it is the Gospel life vision that is totally human and totally in harmony with our deepest aspirations. If we want true fulfilment and happiness, it is this Way that has to be seized as soon as we become aware of it.

Emptying oneself
In the Second Reading we have the magnificent hymn about Jesus’ own spirit of service and selflessness. Paul says this in the context of a plea for greater unity in the Christian community at Philippi. In urging the Christians to serve each other’s needs with the deepest respect, he asks them to have the mind of Jesus himself, to think like he does. And he illustrates this by quoting what seems to have been an early Christian hymn. It speaks of the awesome dignity of Jesus as the Son of God. Yet Jesus did not emphasise this in his life among us. On the contrary he “emptied” himself and became just like us. He went further and took on the status of a slave and ultimately accepted human death, and the most shameful of all possible deaths, death as a convicted criminal on a cross, a barbaric form of execution.

If we were to be filled with that same spirit that Jesus had we would have nothing to fear. And what wonderful places our Christian communities would be: places of harmony and unity, of love and caring, of compassion and mutual support, of looking after each other’s needs. And, let us remember, it is never too late to start. Let’s begin today.

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