THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – September 28, 2014


From the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 18:25-28

From the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 2:1-11

From the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:28-32

 

Not to be irreverent about it, but the truth is that little got Jesus into more trouble than the company he kept. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them! Behind the statement was the assumption that what they did, he did likewise. If Jesus walked the land today, who would be his friends? What types would they be? From what class? Certainly some of them would be the ordinary, decent and hard working types similar to those he invited to leave their nets, follow him and become fishers of people. Those called weren’t extraordinary in many cases, but they had good hearts and were fascinated by the hope found in the tales he spun. There were others with whom he was seen, with whom he would dine and break bread. These associations would inspire scandal among the elite and those who had no need for forgiveness.

The challenge as we listen to the readings for this Sunday is to determine where we would number ourselves. On which side would we be? And another question might be, is the church as welcoming, even of those others determine to be sinners?

To be moved by Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading and the questions Jesus poses in the Gospel, one has to have a sense of being a sinner, or at least a compassion for those who are sinners. The judgmental will be left cold, just as were the chief priests and elders confronting Jesus about his authority and who were scandalized because prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners were known to have dined with him. In fact, more than likely, some of those were present during this exchange.

The first reading and the Gospel hold up the possibility of conversion to us. Conversion can go in either direction, as Ezekiel points out. Someone can grow weary of virtue and take up the ways of the sinner. The sinner can see the light, as they say, and seek out virtue’s path. There are consequences for both – favor with God for the virtuous one and death for the one who embraces evil. Hebrew Scripture is very clear about the link between sin, suffering, and death, and between virtue and life and prosperity.

In today’s Gospel, it is the supposedly righteous, the chief priests and the elders, those who have no felt need for repentance, much less for mercy, that are judgmental about those they deem to be sinners. Their intent is to trap Jesus and to find faults with which to charge him. They do not understand his mission and are scandalized not only by the company he keeps, but his seeming disregard for prescripts of the Law. Jesus and some of his disciples had been seen eating without first washing their hands. To them Jesus said: A man had two sons. Each son is asked by the father to work in the vineyard. One son refuses but later regrets his refusal and goes into the vineyard to work. The second pleases his father with an affirmative response but in turn does not do the work. Which of the two did his father’s will? The hook is baited and dangling and they bite. Their answer? The one who at first said no but later did the work.

Things are seldom what they seem. Skimmed milk masquerades as cream. Gilbert and Sullivan are the source of that observation and it is apt here. Jesus is looking for the genuine article evidenced by the graced invitation to change one’s life and live the law of love. Paul, the Apostle, in the reading from the Letter to the Philippians is one of those who, having encountered Christ and heard him, changed his life. If there is any encouragement in Christ (for me writing to you from prison) 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. In order for that to happen, each person must do what Paul did in imitation of Jesus. People must empty themselves as Jesus did, taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Conversion is that kind of emptying. The annals of the saints are filled with stories of conversions. Certainly Augustine stands in the forefront of those who could say; Late have I loved you. Ignatius, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and countless others all had moments of encounter with Jesus and their lives were never the same again. They like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus had in mind, had said no to the father’s directive to work in the vineyard, but later, said yes.

It would be easy to judge them in their original mien and sign them to perdition as the chief priests and elders were wont to do. But Jesus uses them as judgment against their accusers, themselves the ones who had said yes but then refused to do the work. I think of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, saints, I believe, of the last century. Each new what it meant to be a sinner and had committed sins quite unacceptable to most. They came to profess their newfound faith. They died in the waters of Baptism and rose to lives of compassion and service of the poor. There are some who judge them to be unworthy of every being considered for sainthood because of the sins in their past. What would they do with Paul who had persecuted the church?

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, they said about Jesus. This became the charge that justified his crucifixion. Would that today that same charge could be leveled against the church, the Body of Christ. This is not to say that the invitation should be, come and stay in your sin. Neither is it to deny the reality of sin. Rather, the invitation should be to come and find your way out of the darkness of sin into the light that is the imitation of Christ.

We who are sinners and know what it means to be forgiven, gather around the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God in the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising, that continuing of his pouring out of himself in love for all who would recognize their own emptiness and take and eat, and take and drink. There is transformation in the celebration of the Mystery that is Eucharist. Bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood. The people gathered are transformed into Christ’s presence, too. The church is the Body of Christ, to quote Vatican Council II.

Who are the chief priests and elders among us today? I don’t know that that question is as important as any examination of my own conscience to ensure that those attitudes are not mine. Those who would be judgmental have the Lord to answer to. If they are numbered among the baptized they were sent into the vineyard to be ambassadors of love and forgiveness, to build up God’s kingdom symbolized by the vineyard. None was called to reign, but all were called to serve. None were called to lord it over others, but to abase themselves in imitation Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself. And so ought we that Christ might become all and all in us.

All are welcome? For that to be true, the church must listen to Pope Francis’s invitation to be a poor church serving the needs of the poor. The church must wash the feet that Francis does. The message must be about love, mercy and forgiveness. When that is so, the most desperate will hear and answer, change their ways, and follow.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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