The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Homily: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Readings: Ez 18:25-28: 7; Ps 103; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21: 28-32

Some years ago, a friend, a retired a State Trooper, told me of the time he pulled over a well-known politician for speeding and reckless driving. As he was handed the citation, the politician looked at the trooper incredulously and asked, "Don't you realize who I am?"

"Yes, sir," my friend responded, "and that's why you you're not getting a warning. Someone in your position should have more respect for the law than you demonstrated today."

Not a career-enhancing move on the part of the trooper, but a satisfying story for the rest of us.

"Don't you realize who I am?"

Perhaps one day historians will look back on our era and label it, "The Age of Self-esteem". Obsessed with feeling good about ourselves regardless of our behavior, we’re unwilling as a society to accept responsibility for the ills that plague us.

Our children kill each other, so we look for solutions in legislatures and courts, never dreaming that the cause lies much closer to home. But to question our own values and those we instill in our children might damage the self-esteem of both parent and child. And so we slide down the cultural slope ignoring the impact of abortion and euthanasia and capital punishment on the value we place on human life. Protect us from the unwanted, the expendable!

Addictions -- drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography -- devour the lives of millions and devastate families. So what do we do? Governments go into the gambling business. TV networks air shows glamorizing drug dealers. Government agencies fund the pornographic and sacrilegious because the grant request self-servingly labeled it "Art". But perhaps our most insidious cultural attitude is the idea that a person’s value is best measured by wealth and position – which just leads to another addiction.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a man who was demonstrably proud that he and his wife, both business professionals, earned nearly a half-million a year. Their children? Well, they were being raised by schools, day-care centers, au pairs, and baby-sitters.

“To succeed today you have to work hard,” he explained. “That means long hours. But we grab all the quality-time we can, and try hard to pass our values on to our children." Lucky kids.

He also mentioned that he and his wife were planning a two-week vacation to the islands…without the children. "Parents need an occasional break from the pressures of family life," he said. I couldn't help but think, "What family life?"

Ezekiel in Exile
How we rationalize to avoid responsibility for our actions and to please ourselves.

Of course this is nothing new. Indeed, in today's first reading the prophet, Ezekiel, reprimands the Jewish people who were then held captive in Babylon. They actually blamed God for their problems, believing He had punished them unfairly for the sins of their ancestors. But Ezekiel tells the exiles, "No!" It’s not God who’s unfair, but you who are sinful. You alone are responsible for your sinfulness, and this will keep you from salvation.

He goes on to explain that they have a choice: they are either for or against God. There’s no avoiding it, no comfortable middle ground, no room for compromise, no acceptable rationalizations to preserve their self-esteem. Ezekiel, the prophet of personal responsibility, leads God's people -- and leads us if we’ll listen -- along the only path to salvation.

We hear a similar message in today’s brief Gospel parable of the two sons [Mt 21:28-32]. One son, when asked by his father to do some work, willfully refuses, but later he thinks better of it and does what was asked of him. The other son at first says "Yes" to his father's request, but ultimately does nothing.

Jesus told this story in the temple in Jerusalem, speaking to the elders and chief priests, men who were overly fond of the power and esteem and wealth that came with their positions. Aware of their self-righteousness and hypocrisy, Jesus wants them to take personal responsibility for their behavior. He contrasts them with those they considered the greatest of sinners: tax collectors and prostitutes.

The people's dislike of tax collectors didn't stem from cultural hostility to the idea of taxation. No, the Jews disliked tax collectors because they viewed them as pawns of the Romans, an occupying power, and because many were corrupt, becoming rich from bribes and over-taxation. Matthew, this Gospel’s author, was himself a tax collector when he responded to the Lord's call. Jesus’ association with Matthew and public sinners brought only scorn from the self-righteous elders.

This leads Jesus to compare his audience to the parable’s second son, the outwardly pious son, who says all the correct things, but then goes on to lead a life of self-serving disobedience. And the tax collectors and prostitutes? Like the first son, they repented of their disobedience, accepted God's loving forgiveness, and went on to devote their lives to doing His will. Jesus makes it clear which of the two will be welcome in God's Kingdom.

And so we are left with one word ringing in our 21st Century ears, a word that clashes mightily with our modern sense of who we are: Obedience.

How can I possibly think well of myself if I’m constantly forced to do the will of another? Think of the effect on my self-esteem. Am I not a free person? Do I not have the right to do as I wish…at least within the boundaries of the reigning political correctness? "Don't you realize who I am?"

As usual, St. Paul supplies the answer. Yes, we have the freedom to choose; and with freedom comes personal responsibility for the results of our decisions.

In our second reading Paul instructs the Christians of Philippi to "humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others" [Phil 2:3-4]. Yes, Paul stands our modern mantra on its head by asking: "Don't you realize who they are?"

Then, in one of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament [Phil 2:6-11], he holds up Jesus as the example of freely chosen obedience to God's Will. It's a hymn that reflects both the divinity and the self-effacement of Jesus, Jesus who is God in His very essence: unchangeably, inalienably.

The key is what is called Jesus' kenosis (a Greek word meaning emptiness). It’s the act of Jesus emptying Himself, pouring Himself out until there’s nothing left. He didn't shed His divinity, but rather He shed the privileged status of His divine glory. He didn’t come to exalt Himself by shouting "Don't you realize who I am?" No, He humbled Himself. And for what? For the love and the salvation of the world. Instead, He asks us, “Don’t you realize how much I love you?”
It was all a freely chosen act of obedience to the Will of the Father, a heroic obedience that accepted even the degradation of death on a cross! From that lowest point, the Father exalted Him, and in Paul's words, "bestowed on Him the name above every other name" [Phil 2:9]. For Jesus is the master of all life, brothers and sisters, the master of all creation. We can give Him nothing but the obedience, love and loyalty that no one else can possibly deserve -- not in slavish, broken submission to power and might, but out of recognition of what He did for us. But out of love for Him.

"Don't you realize who He is?"

Jesus Christ is Lord! [Phil 2:11]

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