Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 27 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ezekiel 18:25-28 | Psalm 25:4-5;8-9;10,14
Philippians 2:1-5 | Matthew 21:28-32
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
The conventional interpretation of the parable in today’s Gospel goes something like this. The audience Jesus was addressing were the Scribes and Pharisees who were constantly challenging him.
The father is God.
The first son who said “No” to working in his father’s vineyard but later did so are the tax collectors and prostitutes who at first objected to the calls for changing their lives but later did so.
The second sons who said “Yes” to working, but failed to work are scribes and Pharisees who mouthed the words of the law but do not practice it.
When Jesus asked who was doing the will of God, the scribes and Pharisees replied, “the first one”, to which Jesus responded that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of those who to whom the question was addressed.
The moral of the story, under the conventional interpretation, is that God looks at what we do, not what we say we are going to do, a point reinforced by today’s first reading.
But as all of you are aware, I am not a conventional person who always does what is expected. I am myself with my own independent thoughts. Hence, I have a very unconventional interpretation of today’s readings.
In looking back over the lectionary for the last month or so, we’ve learned something very important about God: just as I don’t interpret today’s Gospel the way others do, we’ve learned that God does not see the world in the same ways that most of humanity does. For example:
In today’s Gospel, Jesus addressed his intellectual and spiritual adversaries, the scribes and Pharisees. His intent was to test them, something Jesus was fond of doing because Jesus regarded them as hypocrites by virtue of their manifest inconsistency on many things. Which of the two sons in the parable did the father’s will, he asked them?
Without knowing it, they condemned themselves with their own answer. They were the ones who prided themselves on their righteousness and piety. They even looked down upon those whose situations in life frequently prevented them from adhering strictly to various prescriptions of the Law. In his response, Jesus tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes, known sinners, will enter the kingdom of God before those who appear to be righteous, will enter God’s Kingdom.
The mistake of the scribes and Pharisees, and the mistake humanity in general commits, was that they do not think in the same way God thinks. As in the Gospels in weeks past, once again, the way God sees the world is different from the way humanity does.
Instinctively, many people would think the first son, who says, No, he will not work in the field but then has second thoughts and decides to do so, is more worthy of God’s favor than the second son, who declares, Yes he will work in the field but then fails to do so. When we think like that, we are thinking about the way human beings normally think in our immediate world.
Most of us would, without hesitation, would label the son who said “Yes” as dishonest. But Jesus says that the first son is like the tax collectors and prostitutes, people of low repute in the Jewish world at that time. Implicitly, Jesus is telling us that the second son who said “Yes” merits more favor, even though he didn’t do as he promised. That, of course, runs contrary to the way most people think.
But the way God thinks is different. God’s message is: the worse sinner you are, the more God loves you.
Our human tendency is to reward good people and punish bad people, but once again, God doesn’t see things that way. We find this theme elsewhere in the Gospels, where God lifts up lowly and inferior people above those who, by human estimation, are high and superior.
God’s preference for the people at the bottom over those at the top begins, for those who are imperfect over those who are perfect, is found throughout scripture. In the Song of Hannah, an older barren woman who miraculously became pregnant proclaimed:
“He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor
The Song of Hanna echoes the Song of Mary, commonly called the “Magnificat”. Our Lady Mary sings about putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek. And you probably will recall the story in the Gospel of Luke about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee who assumed God’s favor because he was not like a Tax Collector, a low-status job in biblical times.
To give you some background, tax collectors in the place and time of Jesus were not like the Internal Revenue Service. They were Jewish contract workers for the Roman Empire given a quota that they fulfilled by shaking down people in their community. Needless to say, they were most unpopular among their fellow community members. Yet in that parable, Jesus taught that because the tax collector asked for God’s mercy, he went home justified before God.
In that story, Jesus reminded us in that story that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted, once again illustrating a sharp contrast between God’s viewpoint and the social order created by human persons.
And you may recall the parable of the banquet, where Jesus counsels us to sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say, “Friend, move up higher.”
All of these texts illustrate a biblical concept called “The Great Reversal”, the hallmark of which contrasts the difference between God’s thinking and human thinking where the world is turned upside down from what we expect.
In today’s Gospel, the first son by human rules is more worthy by human rules than the second son. On the surface, he’s a better person because he made a mistake and corrected it, whereas the son who said yes is a bad person because he broke his promise. But in the Kingdom of God, things will be turned upside-down–or really, right-side-up–from the way they are now in the world. Consequently, the person who sins more has more sins to be forgiven and therefore presents more of an opportunity for God to be who God truly is and what people are not: slow to anger, full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering, and of great goodness.
God loved what is humble and lowly so much that when God became incarnate among us, Jesus came not as a powerful conquering hero, but as a child born in a manger to a poor unwed teenage mother who wandered about as a homeless itinerant preacher with nowhere to lay his head. As St. Paul tells us in the portion of scripture for the Second Reading on Palm Sunday,
“Have in you the same attitude
that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him.
What this says is even though Jesus was divine, he humbled himself to appear and act like an ordinary human person, and because of that, God exalted Jesus. Once again, in the very act of sending Jesus, we see that God does not think like people think. That mystery called God does not always meet our expectations. God is always surprising us.
So many people have trouble getting used to the unpredictability, that is, the mystery that is God. The usual response of many people when things don’t work out as expected with God is to reformulate God to be what they want God to be, and then expecting that God will fulfill their definition of God. And sometimes people get mad at other people who don’t accept how they define God! But more often, we are surprised, like the people listening to Jesus in today’s Gospel.
For example, human concepts of status do not matter to God. We saw that in last week’s Gospel, where the laborers in the vineyard who worked only an hour were paid that same as those who worked all day. By human rules, those who worked longer should have been paid more than those who worked a shorter time, but that’s now what happened. You will recall the vineyard owner asking, in so many words, “Can’t I do what I want with my own money”? What that question really asks is not God free to love as God chooses, which is universal.
Money, in that parable, represents God’s grace. Despite human expectations that those who are more worthy by human rules should receive a larger amount of it, God exercised His prerogative to do was He seeks fit with his grace. God chose to offer it to everyone in the same amount, even though we as human persons may see this as unfair.
In today’s first reading, God invites us to reflect on fairness. Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God asks us,
‘Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? Humanity’s idea of fairness seems to be based on a meritocracy, where personal achievements point to entitlement to wealth and power to dominate other people. When that happens, those people acquire more credibility in the eyes of those not so fortunate, presenting the question, “Don’t we all want to be where they are?”
But God’s answer is different and unexpected. People of lower status in those days, that is, tax collectors and prostitutes, have more of an idea of what the Kingdom of Heaven is about, because they, not the high-status Sadducees and Pharisees, took the time to listen to John the Baptist and his call repentance, that is, a turning around. Those not heavily invested in the status quo are more likely to change their ways into God’s ways because they have less baggage to weigh them down.
What God seeks in us is our intent. The first son, the one who said no and later worked in the vineyard, never intended to do his father’s will. Yes, he actually did it, but to do so was never his intent. He changed his mind because he felt guilty about saying no. His heart and soul were not committed to what he did. What God wants is people who say “Yes.” God wants people with their hearts in the right place, even though the follow-through may be imperfect.
God sees the potential to change in those who say “Yes” to God. Though they may be imperfect, they have the potential to improve. The son who said, “No, I won’t go to the vineyard to work” and then goes anyway has nowhere to improve. He is already meeting his master’s expectations by deciding to go to work despite what he said. But the son who said, “Yes, I will go,” but does not go, has the potential to improve his life by working in the vineyard at some time in the future. What is important is that a life of sin and iniquity can be reversed and a better life will follow.
When a couple marries, they each say “Yes” to be perfect in loving, honoring, and cherishing in good times and bad all the days of their lives. But everyone attending knows that the couple will violate those promises. They will have a disagreement, insult one another, maybe even be unfaithful. Marriage does not instantly make you or your spouse more perfect for each other. You always remain the person that you are, married or not.
So are the promises couples make to one another at the marriage ceremony empty? Are they hypocrites? Jesus is the divine “yes!” to our human “we’ll-see,” or “kind-of.” Saying “Yes” allows us to keep trying to live with our inconsistencies. Actions do speak loudly, but words are whispers of hope nudging us to eventually do what we know we should do.
God realizes and expects that we do not always carry through with doing what we intend to do. But our intent shows God where our heart is, where we want to go, although we don’t always get there, sometimes for reasons we can’t help. For example, I can get in my car at nine-hundred hours intending to reach my destination by eleven-hundred hours, but I might encounter a total blockage on the road such that I will never get through it at all and have no choice but to turn around and return home.
But what about the reasons we can help? What if there was no blockage on the road and I just turned around to come home? You could say from that action that I never intended to reach my destination. What that says is we sometimes make conscious decisions that result in failing to meet our intentions. Why do we do this? Because all of us are imperfect.
All of us, no matter how faithful a Christian we are, from time to time fall into sin because each and every one of us is human. That is the number one reason we fail to realize our intentions by way of completed actions. We can try very hard to fulfill what we intend to do, but we often don’t get there. The ballplayer goes on the field to win the game but sometimes loses. No batter hits every pitch over the fence and no pitcher strikes out every hitter. Yet after the game, God loves both of them, imperfections and all.
Since God made us the way we are, God knows our imperfections, and God accepts us as we are. Despite those imperfections, we are still entitled to a generous and equal portion of God’s unmerited and unlimited grace, no matter what we do. We are saved not by our actions, but by our free acceptance of the grace God offers us.
What is grace? It is a demonstration of God’s omnipotence to transform humanity to become more like God. Jesus came to help us with that. In the words of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, “The Son of God became human so that we might become [like] God.” What would otherwise seem absurd, that fallen, sinful humanity may become holy as God is holy, has been made possible through Jesus, who is God in the flesh.
The second son does not disrespect his father by refusing to go as he was directed, but neither does that son obey the father. Doesn’t that describe us? We don’t disrespect God, but neither do we live as God intended. We are all in need of change, yet we persist in our sinful behavior devoid of love for God and neighbor. The problem may be that we have not clearly proclaimed the “Yes” that will push us to do better in the future, towards our ultimate goal as Christians to achieve as much as possible to live without any sin.
As Deacon Sharon pointed out in her homily last week, sin interrupts our relationship with God. No one will ever live a sinless life, but at least we can get going in the right direction by saying “Yes” to God, just like Our Lady when the angel announced to her that she would be the Mother of Jesus.
Doing God’s will, that is, what God wants us to do, always begins by saying “Yes” to God. In saying “Yes”, we are committing ourselves to God, even though because of our imperfections we may not always succeed, or at least, not succeed as quickly as we would like or as other people expect.
But with God, it is never too late. Again, God does not see the world the way we do. Nowhere is that not more true than on the issue of time. Even if we were to live for a thousand ages, on God’s clock, that is like an evening gone. Thus, it’s never too late to follow through on the things God asks from us. What God wants us to do is to say “Yes” to God to get the ball rolling. If God really wants it done, it will get done, one way or another. AMEN.