Our actions speak louder than words

  • September 13, 2011

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 25 (Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32)

I’m not responsible. The devil made me do it. Society, my background and upbringing or my genetic makeup is responsible. And besides, it’s unfair. God is unfair — and maybe God doesn’t even exist.

People have always had a barrage of excuses to explain their lapses, errors and failures, but accepting responsibility is especially difficult in our own time. We have dreamed up new and creative ways of evading responsibility. Ezekiel prophesied in a time of great turmoil and suffering — the exile of the Israelites during the sixth century BC. People were asking themselves the usual question after a great catastrophe: why? This passage is embedded in a long chapter (well worth reading) that discusses a change in Israel’s theological understanding precipitated by the experience of exile in Babylon. The traditional understanding of sin and punishment held that Israel was judged collectively — the sin of one was the sin of all. Punishment could be transmitted from generation to generation. But it was made clear that from now on everyone would be responsible for his or her own sin — no collective or transmitted punishment. Those who live an upright life will be blessed while those who turn away from God’s ways for a life of injustice and sin will suffer accordingly.

Most people at the time believed that God was the author of all events. There were not a few people who refused to see any fault in themselves and they did the expected — blamed God. God is unfair. But God will have none of it. God lays the blame where it belongs — on the actions of people. In verses that precede this passage God outlines not only Israel’s iniquities but the many instances of direct disobedience and dishonesty. All actions have consequences and when the laws of God are deliberately violated people suffer the consequences. It is not a matter of punishment but cause and effect in a moral universe. Accepting responsibility instead of evasion and dissembling is a sign of spiritual and moral maturity. This applies equally to individuals, societies, nations and churches.

Evading responsibility is partly because of fear and selfishness and Paul has the solution. If we have been at all transformed by our relationship with Christ it should show itself in how we relate to others. Paul begs his community to give up self-centredness and competition and to be of one heart and one mind. By emptying themselves of ego and selfishness they too can manifest the love, humility and compassion of Christ who renounced all status and privilege in order to save humanity. The proof of one’s religious claims is the degree to which we are able to live out this divine example.

The reason why the story of the two sons hits home is that it is so consistent with human nature. People promise all sorts of things every day — fidelity, commitment, favours and fulfilment of responsibilities. But the world is knee-deep in broken promises and ruptured relationships. Promising is easy but fulfilling is another story. Perhaps we can call to mind people who grumble, complain and refuse to do things but actually we know that they will. Then there is the “No problem!” sort of person — always agreeable but can’t be counted on. Most people are somewhere in between the two types. But who is the one who produces and can be counted on? The one who actually follows through despite what they might say.

Humans promise God many things. We promise God that we will be just, kind, loving and committed to our fellow human beings. We promise to be truthful, forgiving, honest and non-judgmental. We commit ourselves to building a just and peaceful world. But the reality falls far short of that. In fact, those who live out these promises to a credible degree are so uncommon that we call them saints and place them in a completely different category. At the same time there are many of other religious faiths or those with no religious faith at all who do lead exemplary lives and do the things that God has asked us to do.

So who is doing the will of God? What we call ourselves and what we say is not as important in God’s eyes as what we do. Love is always shown in deeds.