By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Response: Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11; Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32
Ezekiel was exiled with his fellow countrymen in Babylon since 598 B.C. The dates of his ministry extended from his call, in 593 B.C., to his final dated oracle in 571 B.C. In today’s first reading, he delivers a message from the Lord God, who was concerned about his reputation for fairness. The reading, as happens often, omits much that would help make more sense of the reading. Here is the context. The exiles were quoting a proverb to blame their ancestors and the Lord himself for their misfortune, “The fathers have eaten unripe grapes, but it is the teeth of the children that are set on edge.” Meaning: God was punishing them, though they were not the perpetrators, but only the descendants of the perps. The Lord warns, “I do not want to hear this proverb anymore.” Through Ezekiel, he states a principle: “The one who has sinned, that one, only that one, will be punished.” Personal responsibility is the issue. Children will not be punished for the sins of their ancestors, at least not by God. All well and good, but it is often true that descendants do endure misfortune because of the sins or bad choices of their ancestors. God should not be blamed.
However, we are faced with a very different theology in the Book of Deuteronomy. In Deut. 5:9 we read, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of ancestors upon their children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” The same in Exodus 20:5; 34:7. These references are from the longer form of one of the Ten Commandments. Casual readers of the Bible are often not aware of what seem like contradictions in the Bible. The key to understanding such contrasts is a word so dreaded by biblical ultra conservatives — Evolution. There is evolution or growth in understanding the Word of the Lord. What was expressed in an earlier generation by human interpreters of God’s “mind” and put into words can often be better expressed by a later generation. It usually takes generations to accept and live by a later and better interpretation. Ezekiel tries to cope with the human conviction that old is always the best. It is not always the best! It is the same with the more recent official addition to our Catechism on opposition to the death penalty. When Pope Francis made this teaching part of our official catechetics, he was interpreting what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. This is difficult for many to accept.
The verses of Psalm 25, selected to respond to the first reading, help us to find a way to understand the revelation to be uncovered in the Scriptures. The psalmist prays, “Your words, O Lord, make known to me. Teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth.” What does the psalmist recommend for those who wish to understand God’s ways? Humility! “He guides the humble … and teaches the humble his way.” A word of consolation from the psalm should be noted: “Remember your compassion, O Lord. Do not remember the sins of my youth and my weaknesses.”
In Philippi, Paul had to deal with internal division in the church he had founded about the year 50 A.D. on his second missionary journey, his first apostolic venture into Europe. It should not surprise us that there were internal divisions. Such are not unknown in parish life to this day. At Philippi, it was a problem of self-seeking and pride. He appeals for unity and humility. He is in prison, yet speaks of his joy: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” Paul includes the ultimate example. Jesus, who is God himself, out of obedience to his Father, humbled himself, even accepting a horrible death. Therefore, God exalted him, so that all bend their knee even at the mention of his name. Humility worked for Jesus. It should have the same result for them. Serving others is the key to eternal reward.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes to Jerusalem once only during his public ministry. The occasion was Passover. The end of the visit was his death. He got off to a bad start with the power structure of chief priests and elders by his attack on their business, which was the temple. This led to a series of confrontations with the religious leadership. In Matthew’s arrangement of material, Jesus had just led his critics into a self-indictment of their rejection of the ministry of John the Baptizer. As if that were not enough to shame them, he adds the parable of today’s gospel reading. A man had two sons. He said to son No. 1, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” Son No. 1 said, “I will not,” but changed his mind and went to work. The man gave the same order to son No. 2. He said, “Yes,” but did not go to work. Jesus’ asked, “Which did his father’s will?” Their answer, “Son No. 1.” The vineyard of the parable represents Israel as a nation or people. This is based on Isaiah 5:1-7, a parable describing Israel as the Lord’s vineyard. To assign specific identities to the owner and the two sons is perhaps making too much of an allegory of the parable. In an allegory every element is a symbol of someone or something. A parable does not have to follow that rule. Therefore, we do not identify the owner as God, nor the sons as Jews and Gentiles.
In a parable, the speaker addresses an audience in such a way that they can see themselves involved in the parable and draw a lesson from it. It is likely that, in its origin, this parable was addressed in the very way in which Matthew presents it. Jesus addresses the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem. They had just challenged him to justify his attack on the temple. The parable is his second challenge to them. Here is the challenge. “John came to you in the way of righteousness. You did not believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did accept John’s way and repented. Even when you saw what good he did with them, you still did not believe John, nor act accordingly.” Jesus compared these important people to those who engage in sexual sins and to tax collectors so hated by all. Why? Because they worked for the Roman occupying government and sometimes cheated their clients. In Matthew’s use of Jesus’ parable, about the year 85 A.D., the ones addressed are no longer chief priests and elders, since the temple was no more. He is addressing and shaming the learned Jewish scribes who felt it their duty to oppose the Christian way as a heresy.