Looking for a theme for the various readings this week, one might find ‘responsibility’ – what we do with our free will when God is calling us to live as Christ did. It is not only saying ‘Yes, I will’ – doing is what counts.
The first reading stresses individual responsibility but also relying on the constantly available mercy of God. We can take the promise of life as personal encouragement when we fail. The sinner who renounces his wrongdoing will be echoed in the Gospel.
Ezekiel was a prophet of the time of the Exile who had much to say about why Israel had been taken captive, seeing it as a result of sinfulness. This whole chapter is taken up with answers to complaints about those who wish to blame God or circumstances rather than seeing what they themselves should be doing. Our selection begins with what the prophet has heard from those who think it is God who is unjust – just as many people today say when they turn away from God. The argument gets complicated, but Ezekiel points out how people may change in both directions about doing good or ill. It is how people finally act that Ezekiel sees as determining their position with God.
Psalm 24/25: 4-9
This Psalmist is aware of past wrongdoing (second section), but relies on God’s goodness, and is ready to obey (the first verses). The descriptions of God are also an answer to the grumblers whose words Ezekiel quoted. The ‘humble’ and the ‘poor’ in the Old Testament were those who, whatever their economic position, recognize that all comes from God and who trust in his guidance and teaching.
Philippians 2:1-11 or 1:1-5
We hear more from the Letter of St Paul to the community for which he had such warm affection. (See the note for 25 Ordinary for the background.) Paul has been greatly troubled by serious divisions between some of the members of that church. With the close bonds he has with his converts, he makes a personal appeal, but also leads on to explaining an important basis for Christian unity. He offers some practical advice of ‘consider the other as better than yourself’ and ‘put other people’s interests before yours’. This is not just a good human practice but follows the example of Jesus.
The liturgy allows the celebrant to stop at this point, or to continue with what is generally seen as Paul quoting a hymn. If you do not hear it at mass, I hope you will find time to read this profound reflection on Christ as God taking on human life in our world. It uses a form, ‘chiasm’ that was common at that time, but no longer is, and moderns may not see how it works. ‘Chiasm’ is named from the shape of the Greek chi, written like ‘X’. The first and last lines balance each other – the top and bottom of the X. In this poem, it starts with Christ Jesus as ‘in the form of God’ – and the end balances it – ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. In the chiastic form the most important point is in the middle (as if where in the X the lines cross). In this poem that is the line ‘obedient even to death’ – dying as the lowest point in human life.
‘Emptied himself’ is the usual translation but I like the alternative ‘stripped himself’ – the basic meaning is the same. Christ gave up all the attributes of God that set him apart from humanity to become fully human with all human limitations, including at the climax, suffering and death. The lines ‘even death on a cross’ may have been added by Paul, though I find they carry the reflection to an even deeper level. It may be a little hard for us in the modern world with differing practices of execution to realize the depths of degradation and pain of crucifixion that were well known in the Roman Empire in that time. It was a punishment used for those considered the lowest in society. It is at this point of extreme suffering and the ending of human life that the turn comes – and we have to absorb the paradox that it was at the very limits of Jesus’ humanity, that God ‘raised him high’. Then he has the position at the top of the entire cosmos, which now is called to acknowledge – ‘bow the knee to’ – his eternal Lordship.
There are a number of Old Testament texts that the early Christians, Paul among them, could call to mind to fill out the simplicity of the hymn. Most significant is the ‘Suffering Servant’ (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). This hymn to one who in his anguish ‘bore the sins of many’ is essential reading for seeing how the early Christians found precedence in God’s plan for the salvation brought by Jesus. It opens with the prediction that the Servant ‘shall be exalted and lifted up very high’, almost the exact words of the Philippians hymn.
Last week’s reading was set in Galilee, and the liturgy has skipped over sections of Matthew where Jesus goes to Jerusalem (we heard of his entrance into the city on Palm Sunday). Almost immediately on his arrival, he becomes embroiled in disputes with the official Jewish leaders, he challenging them and they challenging him.
Jesus in our selection leads them into a dialogue by asking for their opinion of the story he will tell. The skill of Jesus as a story-teller catches their attention. Besides the words the gospels give us, we can guess that like any good entertainer, the way Jesus speaks – and even perhaps acts out the roles – would have drawn the listeners into the tale. The Jewish leaders have shown themselves quick to judge, and they are quite ready with the expected response: it is the one who does who is obedient to the father, not the one who merely promises and does not act.
In the dramatic way a parable often works, Jesus turns the leaders’ answer into an accusation. It is they in their comfortable positions of power and prestige, who have ignored the real meaning of God’s call – in terms of the parable they claim to respond, they do not actually take the step of following God’s call revealed by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Those who did listen and repent are among the outcasts of their society. (Tax collectors who collaborated with the Roman oppressors, and the prostitutes who sold them their services, were viewed almost like traitors.) That example should have been a lesson to the Jerusalem leaders, but they have missed the opportunity to become ‘obedient sons’.
When parables are read at mass, we may hear them as history or we can ask: does this speak to me today as well? Today the question could be, ‘I may say “I will” to God’s call, but do I carry that out in day to day life?’