God's Word on Sunday: Take in the whole before making conclusions

  • September 28, 2023

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

The lives of many saints were often noted for periods of sinfulness or a lack of regard for spiritual values. All of this changed when God burst into their consciousness. The lives of Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Dorothy Day can be divided into “before and after” periods — the before and after referring to their spiritual crisis and subsequent awakening. The two ways — that of life and death — are laid out in stark terms by Ezekiel. Those who turn to sin will die, while those who turn to righteousness will live.

We cannot shake our fist at God with outrage when we suffer the consequences of our sinfulness. First of all, we need not interpret dying and living in literal terms. God does not strike down sinners — they usually do the job themselves. And many who lead upright lives suffer premature deaths, for righteousness and faith are not magic talismans. But as we can see from the lives of many of the saints, and perhaps from our own, the paths that our lives take seldom proceed in an absolutely straight line. They are sometimes crooked, sometimes straight and sometimes far off course and heading in the opposite direction. It takes many people a long time and perhaps some hard knocks before they awaken to the God who is within them and urging them onward. We can never judge a person by where they are spiritually on any given day, for today’s sinner can be tomorrow’s saint.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, and we have seen many instances of this sad fact in our own lifetimes. It is never too late to turn from selfish and sinful ways and return to the path of light and life. At the same time, we cannot afford to become complacent, thinking we have arrived spiritually. Being convinced of our own righteousness and holiness is a certain path to a brutal fall. We can be assured that in every human life God’s grace is at work. We can hope and pray that all eventually awaken to that grace and embrace it.

Paul was adamant: if his followers had been touched at all by the Spirit, love, compassion, sympathy or encouragement from the Lord, then there was only one desirable response. That response was to put aside “self” and become one in mind, heart and Spirit. This does not mean becoming drones or automatons, but being in harmony with God, the Spirit and one another. They were to live for the Lord and others.

Paul then put forward Jesus Himself as the divine model for this mode of living. Jesus was generous to the limit — He emptied Himself, living behind all divine perogatives and took on human form and that of a slave. His one desire was to obey the will of God, and that took Him to the Cross itself. But this was the source of His subsequent exaltation and glory. We need not fear weakness, lack or suffering when it is the result of loving generosity. Our faith should not be a collection of rules, practices and prohibitions, but an expression of this model of Christ-like living.

Talk can be cheap and easy. We can tell a good story and do absolutely nothing. In this story, Jesus contrasted two brothers. The first was asked by his father to work in the vineyard. He adamantly refused, but later on he had a change of heart and did what his father had asked. When the second son was asked to work in the vineyard his superficial and rather smarmy “Yes sir, right away!” was unconvincing, and he did absolutely nothing. The listeners agreed that the first son actually did the will of his father, albeit rather grudgingly.

Jesus made His point: this was the reason tax collectors and prostitutes — those on the margins of society — were entering the kingdom of God ahead of the “righteous” folks who felt that they had an inside track with God. Why? Because when the marginal people heard John the Baptist and Jesus, they believed them and took their teachings to heart. This insight is also meant for us today as many people work overtime determining who is worthy and acceptable, and who can belong.

Look at a person’s whole life — their values, hopes and how they treat others. That tells the story.