by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Have the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2, 1-11
Today’s readings give us plenty of material for reflection. In the reading from Ezekiel, we hear the prophet reminding the people of one of their frequently repeated complaints: “It’s not fair! God’s not fair!” He proceeds to challenge them with God’s reminder that the only thing that is required of them is that they live with integrity. And, of course, that’s the message for us, too.
It’s just a pity that this first reading does not continue for a few more verses in which Ezekiel sums up God’s message: “This is what it amounts to: I’ll judge each of you according to the way you live… So, turn around! Clean house!…Get a new heart, a new spirit!…Make a clean break! Live!” (Ezekiel 18, 29-32)
This is a call to each of us to come out from behind what we have created as the images of our best selves. God shows no interest in our titles, qualifications and status, or in anything else behind which we hide in order to protect and project our image of uprightness. And, for that matter, God isn’t particularly interested in our weaknesses and failings either. As far as Ezekiel is concerned, God is more interested in what we are going to do today and into the future than in what we might have done or didn’t do yesterday. God is calling us to be our true selves, always. And it’s not a matter of a few adjustments or a bit of tinkering here and there. Ezekiel has God telling us to go and get ourselves a complete overhaul, to get a new heart and a new spirit.
The second reading from Philippians proceeds to give us a picture of what this new heart and spirit look like. In essence, it is the mind and heart of Christ Jesus. And Paul offers us some practical ways to achieve that: “Be united with one another in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind… there must be no competition among you, no pretense… always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first” (Philippians 2, 2-10)
What Paul says is not new to us. In fact, it echoes the kind of wisdom and advice we learned from our parents as we were growing up: “ Don’t be selfish! Be kind to others, especially those who are not as fortunate as you are!” Scattered throughout the Bible, there are many similar catchy aphorisms and wise sayings: “A kindly turn of speech attracts new friends, a courteous tongue invites many a friendly response. Let your acquaintances be many, but for advisers choose one out of a thousand” (Sirach 6, 5-6).
In our own day, we often look to cartoonists and comedians for wisdom and insight, simply because they hold up to us mirrors in which we can recognise our own very human frailties and eccentricities. Take, for instance, the stand-up comedian who said: “When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who went off peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.” What a funny and gentle insight into one of the challenges of growing old! But none of us is like that, surely!
And you may have heard the delightful story of a retired Air Force Wing-Commander who was returning home after a reunion of the men who were in his Squadron during World War II. He had a seat towards the back of a very crowded commercial flight to Melbourne. Just as the plane was making its way to its take-off point, a five-year-old boy chose the moment to launch into a wild temper tantrum. His embarrassed mother did everything she could to pacify the boy, who kept screaming and kicking the seats of the passengers in front of him. The elderly Wing-Commander, wearing his Air Force uniform, left his seat and walked quietly up the aisle and stopped next to the screaming child. Pointing to the medals on his uniform, he bent down and whispered into the boy’s ear. Instantly, the boy ceased his screaming, clipped his seat-belt on, and took his mother’s hand. The other passengers broke into spontaneous applause. As the former Wing-Commander made his way back to his seat, one of the flight attendants stopped him and quietly asked: “Excuse me, Sir, but do you mind me asking what magic words you used to quieten that little boy?” The Wing-Commander smiled and whispered: “I showed him my pilot’s wings and war medals and told him that they entitle me to throw one passenger out of the plane door on any flight I choose.”
We’re all capable of tantrums, and it’s words and events like these that can stop us in our tracks, forcing us to reflect on the attitudes and actions that characterize the way we live. And that’s the first step to getting a new heart and a new spirit.
The gospel of today confronts us with two examples of change. There’s the cameo of the lad who refuses to do what his father asks of him. Maybe he wants to be his own man, to have his independence. But he has a change of heart and does as he is asked. The implication is that he has taken a fresh look at his relationship with his father. In the second case, we hear how the lowest of the low in Jewish society, prostitutes and tax-collectors, heard John the Baptist’s call to repentance. They accepted that a real change of heart is demonstrated in one’s day-to-day behaviour. They came to understand that they were not trapped into their soul-destroying past, they were not doomed to be life-long victims or extortionists. Their conversion grew out of a change of heart that allowed them to imagine themselves as different.
In contrast, the real villains of today’s gospel are those who refuse to look at the assumptions on which their self-importance was built. They could not face the fact that their role as religious leaders was based on looking good in public, on mouthing the “right” teachings, on empty show.
The latter part of today’s second reading from Philippians gives us the extraordinary example of the Son of God, who because he did not cling to his divinity, was able to change and become one of us. That kind of change was possible only because he did not despise what he was to become – human like us, in everything except sin. In like manner, if we despise what we are called by Jesus to change into, the change will never occur. When we can embrace the good we see in others as a possibility for ourselves, we will become amenable and flexible. And that, in turn, means believing that God is still living and active in our world, and is not finished with us yet.