By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7,8-9; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
The prophet Ezekiel’s ministry to the fellow exiles in Babylon (Iraq today) took place within the years 593-571 B.C. In the section of his oracles from which today’s first reading is taken, he has to deal with issues of personal responsibility. The Lord God is upset, and that is not good. If one might attribute human emotions to God, which Scripture does and we do always, the Lord was sensitive about his reputation. The Israelites/Jews were in exile from their homeland. Unlike God, they did have human emotions. They blamed their ancestors and God for the destruction of their country and their separation from their homeland and homes. The colorful way by which they placed the blame may elicit a smile from us but obviously not from the Lord God. Here was their proverb to express their feelings: “The ancestors have eaten unripe grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. The Lord warns that he does not want to hear this anymore. He swears, ‘As I live, I the Lord God is speaking, there will no longer be any need to repeat this proverb in Israel. Behold, all life belongs to me, the father’s life and the son’s life, both alike, belong to me. The one who has sinned, he is the one who shall die’.” In other words, personal responsibility, not the guilt of the father punishing the blameless son.
All well and good, but what to do with a contrary theology in Old Testament statements such as Deuteronomy 5:9, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the ancestors upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me . . . ?” The same in Exodus 20:5; 34:7. It should not surprise us that there are different theologies in the Old Testament. They are also in the New Testament. The Scriptures were not handed down from the sky in a hard copy with God’s Imprimatur, (Let it be printed!). They grew organically in what we call the Old Testament from the experience of Israel with their God and societies around them. The same holds true for the New Testament, the Church. We are still growing, organizing, theologians, philosophers, historians; Scripture scholars still battling in contrasting theologies. A guiding, teaching authority in the Church is essential, and even that teaching authority experiences evolution (that dreaded word!). A closed mind can be dangerous to peace in any society. Back to the point of the first reading: God accuses his critics of saying, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” His response: “Listen to me! It is not my way that is unfair, but your ways are unfair.” The theme of personal responsibility is repeated. When a good man turns away from virtue to sin, he is punished for that sin. But if he repents and returns to virtue, “He shall preserve his life.”
The Responsorial Psalm 25 responds to Ezekiel’s predicament by asking the Lord to “teach me your ways, guide me into the truth.” The Psalmist is worried about the sins of his youth. He implores God to not remember them. (Don’t we all?) In the second reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, unlike Ezekiel who has to deal with a problem between God and his critics, Paul has to deal with a problem between “parishioners” at one of his new “parishes,” Philippi in Greece. Some of the leaders in the congregation were disputing about “Who’s on first?” Or who is No. 1 in this congregation? He begs, “If you have any connection to Christ, any love, and share in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by getting along with each other. Put aside selfishness and arrogance, but humbly regard each other as more important than yourselves.” Is this doable? Yes, there is such a case. Jesus, although he is God, took on the nature of a slave, humbled himself by obedience and a humiliating death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted him over everything. Implied question: “If humility worked for him, how about you all?”
In the gospel reading Jesus is in Jerusalem. His invasion (cleansing) of the temple set the stage for confrontation with the religious power structure of Jerusalem. Jesus literally plays them like a cat playing with a mouse — and their opposition becomes deadly. In today’s gospel he presents them with a puzzling parable. A man had two sons. He asks the elder to work in the vineyard. The son says, “No,” then repents (changes his mind) and goes to work. The man went to his second son with the same request. The second son said, “Sure, I’ll go,” but did not. A question for his opponents, “Which son did the will of his father?” The answer: “The first son.” With an oath Jesus says, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” This could only be an insult to religious leadership. Jesus used two examples of people whose lifestyle they had to despise. Having inserted a knife, Jesus twists it in the wound, “When John (the Baptizer) came to you showing you how to please God, you did not believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even when you saw that, you did not change and repent.”
Who are the two sons? Jews and Gentiles? Probably not, although the self-righteous power structure would also rank the Gentiles as sinners. Instead the sons represent two kinds of Jews — those faithful after repentance offered by the Baptizer and faithless because they were too proud to recognize themselves as sinners in need of repentance, at least that is how Matthew judges them in 3:5-10. On that occasion the Baptizer denounces the hypocrisy of the religious leadership coming to the Jordan for baptism. This is in line with Matthew’s attitude toward the religious leadership throughout his gospel. Example: Towards the latter part of the first Christian century the scribes began to assume the title “Rabbi.” Jesus’ disciples with one exception never call him “Rabbi.” The exception is Judas, his betrayer. There are also the criticisms and seven curses against the religious leadership, Matthew 23:1-36. Matthew knew nothing of the ecumenical movement! The heart of the conflict in Matthew’s time was their opposition to the Christian Way, Matthew 23:34, especially competition in making converts, Matthew 23:15. Matthew could have closed this parable with one of his favorite endings, “The last will be first and the first will be last.” One possible teaching for us: Recognize that God can work in people very different from our mindset.