by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders: “I assure you that crooks and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. When John came preaching a way of holiness, you put no faith in him; but the crooks and prostitutes did believe in him. Yet, even when you saw that, you didn’t care enough to change and believe in him.” Matthew 21, 28-32

Each one of today’s three readings offers enough reflection material to keep me occupied for a week, or even longer. Ezekiel challenges us to stop hiding behind the facades of our self-importance and prepare ourselves to take on a new heart and a new spirit. Paul shares a hymn to Christ, calling us as he called the Philippian community, to live lives of service in imitation of Christ, and Matthew has Jesus present us with a very puzzling parable that challenges us to explore what living with integrity actually looks like in our time and place.

Without any hint of apology, Ezekiel calls us to stop pretending, to give up presenting ourselves as honourable, upright, good-living people. He stresses that God has no time for social status, titles, degrees, civic honours or whatever else we try to hide behind to create for ourselves a reputation for being upright. But his challenge penetrates even more deeply as he makes the point that there is nothing to be gained from doing minor adjustments to our behaviour. He comes straight out and says: “Do a complete overhaul. Go and get a totally new heart and spirit!” Ezekiel’s point is that God is not really interested in what we have done or failed to do, but much more interested in what we are going to do. So he urges us to start afresh, to forget about tinkering, and to ask God to give us a new heart and a new spirit.

In the second reading, Paul echoes Ezekiel when he urges us to change our way of acting so that there may be in us the same mind as was in Christ Jesus. Paul’s language is different from what most of us are accustomed to. I suggest that it has to be unravelled a bit. What he wrote to the Philippians is regarded by modern Scripture scholars as a hymn which describes who Jesus was and the mission he embraced of total service to humanity. The clearest paraphrase I have been able to find of today’s second reading comes from Eugene Peterson’s Bible in Contemporary Language. With a full introduction, he introduces the hymn that follows:

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then give me some encouragement. Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front, don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside and help others to get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity, and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life, and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that – a crucifixion. Because of that, God lifted him high and honoured him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth – even those long ago dead and buried – will bow in worship before this Christ Jesus, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honour of God the Father.” Philippians 2, 1-11

In his introduction to this hymn about Christ, Paul reminded the Philippians about the gifts they had learned from living together in community inspired by God’s Spirit: compassion, solidarity, mercy, care and selflessness. The hymn this leads into contains the very essence of what the Christian life is all about: living in selfless service, in imitation of Jesus Christ who embraced our humanity totally so that we human beings might grow into God by living together in communities of selfless love.

This hymn led me to reflect on how many of us were initiated into our Catholic faith through traditional devotions, prayers and hymns, which, like the above hymn about Christ, were something of a mystery. I well remember some of the lines of a hymn in honour of Mary, written by Fr. Frederick Faber:

Oh, Mother, I could weep for mirth
Joy fills my heart so fast;
My soul today is heaven on earth,
Oh could the transport last!

Immaculate! Immaculate!, Fr Frederick Faber, 1871

For years I just couldn’t work out what “transport” had to do with Mary. The only transport I knew as a child was trams, buses, trains and the like. So, whenever we sang that hymn, I pictured a sinking ship, and prayed that all on board would survive.
In time I learned another meaning of “transport”. Paul’s hymn about Christ merits loads of reflection.

The gospel parable of the two sons presents us with a puzzle, because of its ambiguity. The first son had the right words, which saved his father from being embarrassed in front of others, but his words were not turned into action. The elders and religious leaders listening to Jesus had all the rhetoric and religious trappings that pointed to their exalted status, but they did not get their hands dirty by reaching out to people in need. The second son rejected his father’s direction, but eventually relented and did as directed. He represented the tax-collectors and prostitutes, and all those late to respond to the message of Jesus (Gentiles) – all these embraced a change of attitude and heart in response to the good news Jesus proclaimed.

In essence, this parable is a condemnation of anyone whose faith and religious practice is limited to words and ritual. Moreover, the very people who are disowned and rejected by those who only look religious will be the ones whom God welcomes with open arms. Tolerance, compassion, mercy and selflessness are just words and concepts until they are brought to life in our actions and relationships with everyone we encounter. The Gospel of Jesus, with its call to justice, reconciliation and service of those in need, is much more than a message. It is a blueprint for discipleship. Blueprints are useless until they are transformed into something tangible. That transformation begins in our hearts and must find expression in our getting to know and accept as our sisters and brothers those whom we label as crooks and prostitutes.