26th Sunday(A) - September 27, 2020
Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32
by Jude Siciliano, OP
Philippi was an important Roman colony and its inhabitants enjoyed favor under Roman law. Military veterans settled there and Caesar Augustus exempted the city from many taxes. Paul had had a vision that summoned him to preach in Philippi (Acts 16:9). It was the first European city evangelized by Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy. The Christian community in Philippi had supported Paul and he had warm relations with them, as evidenced in the letter. When Paul wrote to the Philippians he was in prison (1:7, 13, 14, 17), probably in Ephesus.
During his arduous travels it must have given Paul encouragement and good feelings whenever he thought of the Philippians and their high esteem of him. Those memories and feelings would have also been a consolation to him in his imprisonment. Still, Paul is not shy about encouraging the Philippians to be Christians not just in good feelings, or lofty words. He wanted them to put their words into action. They were not to act selfishly, or seek praise for their good works. With the Philippians, we are also challenged by Paul to act in daily life in ways that match our words and our ideals.
Paul’s praise of Jesus’ saying "Yes" to God reflects the parable Jesus tells today of the two sons. There is a lot of tension behind today’s gospel. Matthew sets the account in a context of controversy and conflict. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and today’s story takes place just after he has driven out the buyers and sellers from the Temple precincts, infuriating the religious leaders, who should have recognized his prophetic action and seen the hand of God working through his words and works – even in his angry ousting of the merchants. Opposition to Jesus is getting intense and soon these religious leaders will agitate for his death.
Today’s passage continues in the atmosphere of confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests and elders. By the parable Jesus is suggesting they are like the son who says he will obey his father’s request, but does not. They will not commit themselves to Jesus. Weren’t they the ones who were supposed to recognize the Messiah and follow him when he came? The people who did respond to Jesus’ preaching and signs were sinners and outcasts. They were like the son who first said "No" to his father, but then obeyed.
The parable is a reminder that, despite our past and present misdeeds and our stubbornness, we are again offered a chance to change and find welcome in the kingdom of heaven. This is a good news parable for both big and small wayfarers who have chosen a path away from God and God’s ways.
The parable is also a challenge and invitation to change if we have pretended to be good and upright Christians – in name only. Our initial "Yes" to serving God has to be backed by action. It is not enough to say, "I am a Christian," or "I am a Catholic," unless our lives reflect the identity we claim. Yes, we come to church and even say our prayers at home, and then what follows? What’s the vineyard to which we are being sent to labor for God these days, even in the midst of a pandemic lockdown? We don’t have to leave our homes to be doers of the Word of God.
Haven’t we noticed the good works others, who claim not to be believers, are doing? They do the very things Jesus has called his disciples to do. During the pandemic we are hearing many stories of people feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, risking their lives serving in medical centers and emergency wards, etc. They may not claim to be Christian, but in their "Yes" to serve others we recognize the Spirit of Jesus present and inspiring them. We who know how to recognize the work of our bountiful and gracious God give praise in the words of Paul’s closing words, "And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Is it possible that Paul, in the light of this parable, imagined that Jesus is the third son who willingly, quickly and totally says "Yes" to the Father, goes and does the work he has been assigned to do?
If you notice in the story there is no mention of how things turned out? How hard of a worker was the second son? Did he meet the quotas, fulfill minimum hours? There are no measurements in the story: just someone who changes his mind and heart and, after all, responds to an invitation. Maybe that is what is pleasing to God, our desire and efforts to do what God wishes and, at the same time, leaving plenty of room for God to step in and fill the gaps, big and small ones.
The second son had a change of heart. Which encourages us to ask: where and how must my heart change? Towards whom must my heart soften and forgive? We may be in the middle of a pandemic and unable to go beyond the confines of home and work. But even in place we can do some important work, pray for a renewed heart and for the desire to act on it.
You can tell a lot about a person by the stories they tell. Stories from childhood, for example, reflect the earliest influences on us, and help explain our personalities and our outlook on life. The parables may not have been actual events from Jesus’ life, but since, for the most part, he created them, they do reveal a lot about the teller of these stories. You can tell in today’s parable where his heart lies. It is with those who were outsiders, those condemned because of their behavior or, as in other parables, because they were social outcasts by birth. The religiously smug, those who had lots to boast about, found nothing they needed in Christ. Those who had no basis for boast, or who had said various "No’s" in their past, could appreciate the offer Jesus was making them.
We are not gathered here today making a claim on God for our past performances. We may have much we would rather not show to God, others, or even revisit ourselves. But through this parable of "the second chance," grace is given to enable us "to change our minds." We can start anew. This parable is Good News indeed, for those who think it is too late to change, or can’t change. The one who tells this parable to us today assures us we have his help to redirect our lives – to say "Yes" to the God who calls and enables us to change.
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