Sep 27, 2020: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Ezekiel 18:25-28

Thus says the LORD:
You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity,
and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed,
he does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.

The name Ezekiel means “may El (God) strengthen.” Ezekiel grew up in a priestly family, in Jerusalem. He was familiar with the Temple, and very probably knew Jeremiah.

Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry covered the period of 592 to 571 BC. During the second deportation to Babylon in 597 BC, he was taken with others to Tel-Abib (near the city of Nippur, in what is now Iraq). He never returned to Jerusalem except in visions.

The first reading for this Sunday, which predates the destruction of the Temple, paints a very interesting scenario. The people of Israel seem to be challenging the justice of God.

Thus says the LORD: You say, “The LORD’S way is not fair!” 

Ezekiel is prophesying to the exiles in Babylon. This generation of Israelites felt that the fall of their nation and their exile were a punishment for the sins of their ancestors, hence they cry out about fairness.

Ezekiel, however, is the prophet of individual responsibility.

Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?

God responds with a counter-accusation: It is not God’s ways, but Israel’s ways, that are unfair.

When a virtuous man turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.

Two situations are described. Both of them portray a change in behavior. In the first situation, a righteous person sins; in the second, a sinner repents. (The Hebrew verbiage suggests these are two separate individuals.)

Dying is probably not a reference to physical death, but spiritual death by separation from God, who is the source of life.

But if a wicked man, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins which he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

God metes out punishment in the first situation and grants a reward in the second. Is this injustice on God’s part? Is God expected to forgo deserved punishment in the first case because of the good deeds performed earlier by the one who is now a sinner? Is God only to remember the past sinfulness of the person in the second case and not reward a significant change in that person’s lifestyle?

These two situations show us that the justice of God is not dispensed according to the merits that have accumulated throughout one’s past history. Rather, it corresponds to the character of one’s present manner of behavior, to the kind of person one has become. Is this injustice on God’s part? Exactly how did the house of Israel want God to act?

What is described here is not the unlikely case of a person who has lived righteously throughout all of life but dies immediately after having committed one isolated serious sin; rather, the text says this person actually turns away from virtue. Having chosen another path, this person now suffers the consequences of that choice.

Jesus will teach the chief priests and the elders a similar lesson in today’s gospel reading. It is possible for a person who appears to be saying “yes” to God to turn away, and it is also possible for a sinner to repent. Both Ezekiel and Jesus are teaching this truth in hopes that the people will return to the Lord.

2nd Reading – Philippians 2:1-11

Brothers and sisters:
If there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love,
any participation in the Spirit,
any compassion and mercy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,
united in heart, thinking one thing.
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also for those of others.

Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This week is the second of a four-week study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which has been variously called Paul’s epistle of joy, his farewell, discourse, his most human letter, and his most thankful letter.

The Philippians were probably Paul’s favorite converts. Living in a city that was a “little Rome” with law and order, they were now much better off than Paul.

Last week, Paul encouraged the Philippians to “conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27a). Now, he teaches them how to do this, employing one of Christianity’s most exalted hymns of praise of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: If there is any encouragement in Christ,

In this passage Paul will preach unity within the Church, giving a fourfold basis for his appeal. Each of these arguments is grounded in Christ.

First, the encouragement, or hope, found in Christ.

any solace in love,

Regardless of their differences, they should find comfort in the love Christ has shown them. This love is that benevolence which never knows bitterness and never seeks anything but the good of others.

any participation in the Spirit,

Third, their communion (koinonia) in the Holy Spirit, who binds a person with God and with other people.

any compassion and mercy,

Finally, there is the compassion (splánchnon) and mercy (oiktirmós) of Christ.

complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.

After listing the communal bonds that flow from their union with Christ, Paul appeals to their debt to him. He sought to form a community that would be like-minded, sharing the same values. Seeing such commonality in them would give him great joy.

There is only one Christ, one gospel message, and one Church to deliver that message.

“Remember that God is one, His Son is one and His Holy Spirit is one, and all three are one. If so, then we too ought to be one in our thoughts, so as to be `of the same mind’ with the one God. Then it follows that we are to have `the same love.’ To be of the same mind pertains to knowledge, while to have the same love pertains to discipline, to the conduct of life.” [Marius Victorinus (ca. A.D. 355), Epistle to the Philippians 2,2-5]

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.

Unity would be manifested in their common outlook, in their lack of selfish ambition, in the consideration they show to one another.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Having exhorted the Philippians to live in unity, Paul offers Christ as their model. He then goes on to recount the nature and mission of Jesus in a christological reflection.

Who, though he was in the form of God,

Jesus is in his very essence God: unchangeably, inalienable. His being in the form of God wasn’t just a superficial outward form which can change.

“If Christ were only a man, He would have been said to have been ‘in the image of God,’ not ‘in the form of God.’ We know that humanity was made in the image, not the form, of God.” [Novatian (ca. A.D. 235), The Trinity 22,2]

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Christ, who existed from before the creation of the world, did not cling to the divine dignity that was rightfully his. He did not use his exalted status for his own ends.

Many see an allusion to the Genesis story here: though in the form of God (Genesis 1:26-27), Jesus did not reach out for equality with God the way Adam and Eve did (see Genesis 3:5-6).

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;

The key is what is called Jesus’ kenosis: the fact that he emptied himself. He did not empty himself of divinity, but of the status of glory to which he had a right, and which would be restored at his exaltation.

Note the contrasting references to the “form” of Jesus. He was in the form of God but took the form of a slave.

and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

In taking the slave-like human condition, he also took on the vulnerability and powerlessness of that station in life.

becoming obedient to death,

Obedience is the determining characteristic of a slave, and the extent of Christ’s obedience is striking. Compliance with God’s will in a world that is alienated from God requires that one be open to the possibility of death.

even death on a cross.

In a sense, Christ’s crucifixion was inevitable. It was a common punishment for slaves, the nadir of human abasement. Such ignominy was an indication of the completeness with which he emptied himself of his divinity.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

The self-denying act of Christ is matched by the active response of God. Christ’s exaltation is as glorious as his humiliation was debasing.

Note that while Christ was the subject of his self-emptying, his superexaltation is attributed directly to God. His extreme humiliation is matched by his extreme glorification.

and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

Recall that in the Jewish culture, one’s name contains the essence of the individual. God has raised Jesus’ name, his essence, above every other.

Explicit mention of the new name is held back until the end of the hymn.

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

This hymn transfers to Christ the homage given to God alone (Isaiah 45:23).

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

According to ancient thought, these are the three levels of the universe. All of creation is brought under Christ’s lordship.

and every tongue confess

Another reference to Isaiah 45:23.

“‘Every tongue’ stands for every people. But if the confession of Christ as Lord is a glorification of the Father, it is clear that those who call Him a creature and a slave deface the glory of the Father also. In these few words, however, the divine apostle has subdued every heresy, among those who blaspheme the divinity of the Only-Begotten, and those who deny His humanity and those who misconstrue the hypostatic union of the two natures.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 425), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul Philippians 2:11]

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

Finally, the new name of Christ: Kyrios (Lord).

From Jesus’ heroic degradation on the cross, he has been exalted to the highest point in the universe. Jesus is the master of all life, a cosmic influence over all creation.

This statement was the early Church’s first creed, and it’s the essence of ours. We give Jesus an obedience, a love, and a loyalty we can give no one else. At his name, “every knee must bend,” not in broken submission to might and power, but to the influence of love.

to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus’ new position on the heavenly throne constitutes no rivalry to the Father, to Yahweh himself; rather, Jesus’ voluntary abasement and creation’s homage paid to him in his exalted status bring honor to the Father.

While the christological importance of this hymn is clear, we should remember that Paul wrote it as a stirring incentive for the Philippians’ own attitudes of mind and heart. A life worthy of the gospel is a life lived in self-sacrifice for the good of the other.

Gospel – Matthew 21:28-32

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 afterwards 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.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
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.”

We have moved forward in Matthew’s gospel from the beginning of Chapter 20 to the middle of Chapter 21. A lot has transpired between last week’s reading and today’s reading, including Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem accompanied by shouts of Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-11).

Jesus now continues teaching his disciples, now in the Temple courts.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: 

Just before this reading, the chief priests and the elders (representatives of the Sanhedrin) approached Jesus and questioned the source of his authority (Matthew 21:23-27). In reality, this confrontation was a struggle over reputation — a significant concern in a society governed by principles of honor and shame. The chief priests and the elders needed to maintain their status within the community in order to retain the loyalty of the people.

This parable is part of Jesus’ answer to them.

“What is your opinion? A man had two sons.

Stories of two siblings are common in folklore. They usually represent two ways of life or two ethnic groups. Examples include Cain/Abel (Genesis 4:116), and Jacob/Esau (Genesis 25:23-28). Although the folktales generally feature male characters, sometimes the siblings are sisters (Ezekiel 23:1-49).

He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’  He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went.

The sons in the story represent two ways of responding to a father’s command. The first son outrightly refuses to obey.

This is a serious breach of protocol in a patriarchal kinship structure. It could also be dangerous, for the head of such a household frequently held the power of life and death in his hands. These details were well known by those in Jesus’ audience, and they contributed to the portrayal intended by Jesus.

However, this headstrong son repents (metamélomai) and eventually does as his father charged him to do.

The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.

The second son does not disrespect his father to his face by refusing to go, but neither does he obey him.

Which of the two did his father’s will?”

As with every parable, the lesson is drawn from the comparison between the intended audience and someone in the story — in this case, the son who initially says “yes” but did not go.

By inviting the chief priests and elders to pass judgment on the characters in the story, Jesus is inviting them to pass judgment on themselves.

They answered, “The first.”

They realize that the son who initially said “no” but then did his Father’s will is the obvious answer to Jesus’ question, so they respond accordingly.

Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.

Without knowing it, the chief priests and elders condemned themselves with their answer. They prided themselves on their righteousness and piety, and even looked down upon those whose situations in life frequently prevented them from adhering strictly to various prescriptions of the Law.

Jesus tells them that known sinners (tax collectors and prostitutes) will enter the kingdom of God before they will. Note that Jesus does not suggest that they will be refused entrance, simply that the others will be preferred.

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.

Jesus makes the message of the parable explicit by drawing a comparison between the known sinners and the first son. This is unusual; most often it’s left up to the reader (or hearer) to apply the lesson of the parable to the intended audience.

He uses openness to the message of John the Baptist as a litmus test of openness to the message of the kingdom. In his role as a precursor to the Messiah, John admonished his hearers to choose the way of righteousness.

Like the first son, the tax collectors and prostitutes originally said “no” to righteousness, but when they heard John the Baptist preach, they repented.

The chief priests and the elders are like the second son. They considered themselves righteous because of their original “yes” to righteousness, but ultimately refused to hear the truth preached by John, see the error of their ways, and repent. In this refusal, they are ultimately saying “no” to God.

Both groups are imperfect. Those who regretted their refusal to work but then turned back and obeyed spoiled their doing good by the awfully ungracious way they did it. But it’s far more noble to change your mind and do good than to remain set in the direction of evil.

The ones who knew they were needy were open to God’s grace; the ones who considered themselves observant and pious did not see their need for repentance.

Connections and Themes

Choose. Throughout our considerations of the character and responsibilities of discipleship, the words “must,” “should,” and “require” have appeared again and again. Such language could make us think that following Jesus only makes demands on us. Without in any way minimizing the fact that there are indeed responsibilities that come with discipleship, it is important to remember that this does not deny us our freedom. We are called to discipleship, and there may well be an urgency in this call, but it is an invitation that is to be accepted only freely. Nor is the decision to be a disciple a once-for-all choice. As is the case with life itself, options are placed before us all the way along the road. We are invited to choose in favor of the reign of God, or we are free to ignore the invitation. Furthermore, the invitation always remains open to us. Because we decline it on one occasion does mean it will never be offered again. God’s desire for our acceptance is persistent and enduring.

Obedience and disobedience. In every life there is a struggle between obedience and disobedience, and this struggle takes various twists and turns. At times we are willing to conform to regulations set from the outside; at times we are not. Even in this we are not consistent. Those who are fundamentally righteous have sometimes fallen from grace, and people considered evil to the core have been known to reform their lives. Taking another perspective, we see that in some situations we promise to be submissive but then do not carry through with our promise. In other situations, we refuse to comply, but later we change our minds and do what we have been asked to do. What ultimately count are not the promises one makes but the actions one takes. In every life there is a struggle between obedience and disobedience.

Commitment in community. Ultimately the choice set before us is the imitation of Christ. The specific characteristic of Christ offered for our consideration today is his humility. Paul is concerned about the character or disposition of the community. He warns against the members’ inclination to demand their rights, to expect that others show them the deference they believe they deserve. Such attitudes can undermine the loving quality of the community, so he offers them the example of Jesus for their imitation.

It is clear that whichever aspect of discipleship we examine, some aspect of community is present. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow him as a member of a believing community.