This Sunday we are warned that people who seem like outsiders may be closer to God than others who look down on them. Rank or privelege means little in the God's sight. The parable of the two sons illustrates how actions speak louder than words. Doing the right thing is better than talking about it!
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.
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 God the Father.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders: "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."
The sting in today's parable is in the blindingly obvious answer to the question Jesus sets "Which of them did the father's will?" The point is then very sharp: those who seemingly never have experienced sin and conversion (who are they?) are quick to judge others who come to God through failure and fracture. It is like the ninety-nine who have no need of conversion—we may doubt that they ever really existed! A certain complacency can mark any settled religious group and if we add to that self-righteousness, then the mix is explosive and we are far from the Gospel as preached by Jesus.
For his exegetical comments on today's readings, click here.
Up to a century ago, bishops in Ireland were chosen only from the ranks of the aristocracy. Here, there was a reason for this: they had to be self-supporting because the people were too poor to pay them. But it was equally the case in wealthy countries like France, where the first requirement in a bishop was noble birth. The great mass of the lower clergy, parish priests and curates, were excluded from bishoprics. Some unedifying trappings of aristocracy still survive in the church, like titles ("eminence" "princes of the church"), elaborate forms of dress ("cappa magna", lace surplices), "episcopal palaces", forms of address like "Your Lordship" and offering a hand to be kissed rather than shaken.
That aristocratic world was shaken when the French Revolution abolished hereditary titles and made all citizens equal before the law. In the world of the common man, what titles remain are largely honorary. But old habits die hard, and not only in the church. A new elite has replaced the old. Aristocrats have given way to plutocrats. The exclusive world of privilege never really dies. It only changes hands. The modern rich have all the trappings of the old nobility apart from the titles. They live in security-guarded palatial homes and frequent exclusive clubs, to protect them from contamination from the common herd.
An egoistic longing for exclusivity and superiority seems imbedded in human nature and contaminates even the sanctuary. The Jews were happy with their racial exclusivity, excluding not only pagans from God's favour, but even the Samaritans who failed their rigid test of orthodoxy. Jesus indignantly warned the chief priests and elders, "Prostitutes and tax-collectors are making their way into the kingdom of God before you." From Jewish exclusivity through Calvin's view of the elect, to our own (former?) mantra "outside the church there is no salvation', exclusivity is a temptation to religious people. Amid diminishing numbers of church-goers and with religion no longer a mass phenomenon, we may be tempted to circle the wagons and hunker down. But Jesus' warning has a special relevance for us today, against seeing the church as a "Members-Only" Club.
An idea that arises from today's readings is that of changing one's mind. Ability to change our minds leaves us open to hazard and to hope; hazard when we choose to "renounce our integrity and to commit sin, hope when we choose to renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest" (Isaiah.)
Today's Gospel illustrates the value and nobility of revising our decisions. The first son "thought the better of it." He was open to change, to better thoughts. The second son was set and closed. The ability to change one's mind is essential to all healthy relationships. A mind that is closed, whether from pride, stubbornness or stupidity, tends to destroy all relationships, e.g., when we refuse to admit a mistake, when we are unwilling to apologise and change our ways, when we persist in prejudice against a person or group, when we think we know it all. The second reading (Philippians) talks of a more specific and positive change of mind: "in your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus', or as an older translation put it, "let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus." This is the direction in which we must be constantly changing our minds day by day.
Paul emphasises one aspect in particular of the mind of Christ, his humble openness and self-emptying in contrast to the conceited grasping and clinging of Adam: "he did not cling to (or grasp at) his equality with God (as Adam did in Eden) but emptied himself.."
Ever since Adam, we are have a strong tendency to cling to whatever we have. The new-born baby needs a tight grip, and as we get older the grip often gets stronger. Clinging permeates all of life; we cling to people (possessiveness) ; to things (greed) ; to power and position (ambition) ; we cling to opinions (pride.) At the root of our clinging lies fear and insecurity. The apparently strong person who clings aggressively to set ways or ideas is in reality full of fear. Notice your physical reactions to fright; you clench up and grasp at something or someone, as a frightened child clings to its mother.
In the Buddhist tradition, clinging is seen as the root of all suffering. When you are unhappy, it can be enlightening to pursue the question "What am I clinging to?" It might be an idea, a plan, an expectation, power, possessions, reputation, a place, a person, health, even life itself. All wise traditions recommend a light grasp of everything. Anxious clinging leads to misery. As soon as we begin to relax our tight grasp and let go, we begin to be free and happy. ("Letting go" is a useful modern equivalent for "self-emptying.")
Jesus did not cling to things. He knew that ultimate reality could be trusted, because that ultimate reality is "Abba, dear Father," and holding everything together, even death itself, are the everlasting arms. So he did not cling even to life, "accepting death, death on a cross." "Into your hands,. I commend my spirit." May this mind be in us which was in Christ Jesus.
José Antonio Pagola
One day Jesus told the religious leaders of his people a harsh truth: «The tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you». A few years ago I was able to verify that Jesus' declaration isn't an exaggeration.
A group of prostitutes from different countries, along with some Oblate Sisters, were reflecting the book, "Jesus -- an Historical Approximation". It was remarkable the attraction that Jesus has for these women of simple souls and good hearts. The following are some of their testimonies.
«I felt dirty, empty, like something insignificant, everyone used me. Now I want to keep living because God knows all about my suffering… God is within me. God is within me. God is within me. This Jesus understands me!…».
«Now, when I get home after work, I wash myself with real hot water to scrub my skin clean of all that soils me, and then I pray to this Jesus because he does understand me and he knows all about my suffering… Jesus, I want to change my life, guide me because you alone know my future…».
«I ask Jesus all day to get me away from this way of living. Every time something happens to me, I call on him and he helps me. He's near me, it's wonderful… He carries me in his hands, he bears me up, I feel his presence…».
«In the morning is when I talk most with him. He hears me better because at that time people are sleeping. He's right here, he doesn't sleep. He's always here. With my door closed, I kneel down and ask him to make me worthy of his help, to forgive me, to help me work for him…».
«One day I was resting in the sun and I said: Oh my God, is this all I'm good for? Just to be a prostitute?… That is the moment when I most felt God carrying me, you understand? Changing me. It was right then. I'll never forget it. You understand?…».
«Now I speak with Jesus and I tell him: here I am, be with me. You saw what happened to my friend (referring to a friend who was killed in a hotel). I pray for her and I ask that nothing bad happen to my companions. I don't say it aloud, but I pray for them because they're persons like me…».
«I'm mad, sad, hurt, rejected, no one likes me, I don't know who to blame: is it better to hate other people or myself, or hate the world. Look, from my childhood I believed in You and You've let this happen to me. I give You another chance to protect me now. Okay, I forgive You, but please don't leave me again…».
What mystery is wrapped up in Jesus to have such power in the heart of these people? How much the lives of many would be changed if they knew him better.