Looking for a theme for the various readings this week, one might choose ‘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.
This prophet is not always easy to understand, and this is short version of a long discussion on personal guilt. In this chapter Ezekiel was arguing against those who felt the sins of the parent bring punishment on the children. Not so, he says, each of us is responsible for the choice we make between doing good or wrong. The whole tone of the chapter is summed up by a repeated statement that God ‘takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, so repent and live!’
Psalm 224/225 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, Paul concludes, but follows the example of Jesus. We can look to the present to judge if our Christian communities need the same advice.
The liturgy allows the reader to stop at this point, or to continue with what is generally seen as Paul quoting a hymn which is a 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 moderns may not see how it works. Chiasm is named from the shape of the Greek chi, written like our ‘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’ or ‘stripped himself’: Christ gave up all the attributes that set God above humanity, and he became fully human with all human limitations, including as the climax, suffering and death. The lines ‘even death on a cross’ some think were 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 supposedly humane practices of execution to realize the depths of degradation and torture 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 of the chiasm comes in the paradox that it was at the utmost limits of Jesus’ humanity, that God ‘raised him high’. Now he has the position at the top of the entire cosmos, which now all are called to acknowledge – ‘bow the knee to’ – his eternal Lordship.
Last week’s reading was set in Galilee, and the liturgy has skipped over sections of Matthew where Jesus goes to Jerusalem (we hear 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 challenges them or they challenge 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 to examine their lives and make changes – ‘to repent’. In terms of the parable, they claim to act they do not actually do so. Those who did listen and repent are among the outcasts of their society. Tax collectors who collaborated with the Roman oppressors, were at that time. viewed like traitors. Prostitutes then as now were blamed not just for selling their bodies, but had the symbolic role in the prophets of representing those who abandoned their religion for other gods. The shock of their repentance 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 historical arguments or we can ask: does this speak to us today as well? I would ask myself, while I say “I will” to God’s call, how do I carry that out in day to day life?’