by Br Ian McDonald cfc
“If our life in Christ means anything to you, if love can persuade at all, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tendencies and sympathy, then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. That is the one thing which would make me completely happy.” Philippians 2: 1-11
”Then Jesus said to the chief priests and elders: “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.”’ Matthew 21: 28-32
I feel sure that many of us would have heard the story of an early primary-school little girl by the name of Anna, who, early one morning during the school holidays, settled down on the lounge-room floor with her crayons and a large sheet of white paper. In next to no time, she was concentrating on drawing a picture. When her older brother came into the room and saw what she was doing, he asked: “Anna, what’s that you’re doing?” With an air of confidence, Anna responded: “Well, I’m actually drawing a picture of God!” After only a moment’s pause, the young lad replied: “But, Anna, nobody knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, Anna responded with equal confidence: “They will when I’ve finished here!”
While it’s true that most of us have not directed our attention to drawing a picture of God, it’s equally true that, when we take time to pray, we have in our minds something of a construct of the God to whom we have turned our attention. It’s not likely to be a pictorial construct, but rather some thoughts or images of how we envision love or mercy or compassion or forgiveness or other qualities we have come to attribute to God. Over time and from the exposure we have had to religious rituals, to praying prayers we have learned by heart, to looking at statues of Jesus and the saints, and singing hymns, we have distilled for ourselves an individual “theology” and an approach to God with which we have become comfortable.
Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us an insight into how Paul came to envisage God who, he explained, was reflected in the person of Jesus. We also know from our reading of Scripture that the author of John’s Gospel and the Letters of John came to envisage God in a slightly different way. For example, John stated without qualification: “God is love!” Moreover, he added: “And anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in her/him” (1 John 4: 16).
Like young Anna drawing her picture of God, Paul and John have given us their word-pictures of God, drawn from their experience of how God was depicted in the Jewish scriptures and how they experienced Jesus personally or had Jesus described to them by those who had seen him in action during his public ministry. In the reading we hear from Philippians today, Paul proceeded to state that the extent of Jesus’ love for humanity was such that he relinquished the privileges that belong to divinity and, instead, became a slave even to the extent of dying on the Cross for all of humankind.
During his lifetime, Jesus had stated that the distinguishing mark of those who would follow in his footsteps would be love. He had pointed out to those who came to him for guidance in life that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love others as oneself. Paul had stated without hesitation to the Philippians and to everyone who would be a disciple of Jesus: “If you genuinely want to know what God looks like, all you need to do is look at Jesus who lived the great commandment to love as no other had lived it before or after him.”
Christians through the centuries, while pointing to love as a priority, have struggled to live love in practice. Today’s gospel-reading built on the parable of the two sons demonstrates the frustration Jesus experienced in dealing with the chief priests and elders who failed to match their rhetoric with genuine love for the people to whom they claimed to reach out in love and compassion. So frustrated was he with them that he told them that the most notorious of sinners would be welcomed to the kingdom of God ahead of them.
That same message is put to each of us, for we, too, struggle to reach out in love and compassion, especially to those closest to us. Moreover, that’s a challenge that has been directed to us repeatedly in the Gospels and in literature as well. For example, Russian novelist Dostoevsky, after exploring the attempts at love pursued by his principal characters Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha, concluded: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” And the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was even more cutting in his play, No Exit when he stated acerbically: “Hell is other people!” We know from experience that the kind of love that Paul encourages us to integrate into our way of relating, when he urges us to “put on the mind of Christ Jesus”, involves setting aside self-interest, and putting first the needs of those with whom we live and work. We all yearn for love but are slow to pay the “hard and dreadful cost” of putting others ahead of ourselves. We prefer to live with a sense of being entitled to respect, tolerance and deference from those around us. We know the invitation to serve rather than be served but we allow ego and self-importance to intrude. We can tell ourselves again and again that God loved us first by loving us into life and by sending Jesus to identify with us as our brother in the fullness of our humanity and by going ever farther in spending his life for us. We effectively acknowledge the love of God expressed to us in Jesus only by reaching out in love to all our brothers and sisters without stinting. The second brother in the parable of today’s gospel-reading baulked at that but even though he expressed his resistance, he experienced a metanoia and brought himself to pay the price of love in action. Today’s readings say to each of us: “Can you imitate that second son?”