XXVI Sunday in ordinary time

XXVI Sunday in ordinary time

Qua., 23 Set. 20 Lectio Divina - Ano A

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28, Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11, Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32

At Times the More Convinced “Yes” Passes Through a “No”

Some people answer ‘yes’ either without having understood or not being serious about it. Some people answer ‘no,’ either they have not looked beyond the appearances or because they are not convinced and want to understand better. Their ‘no’ is just temporary and a polite way to ask for an explanation and to say that they want to see a thing more clearly. Whoever immediately answers ‘yes’ to God perhaps does not realize who He is, what He thinks and proposes. While this instant ‘yes’ people have no remorse for ultimately acting ‘no,’ the other group pass through the initial ‘no’ and reach a more convinced ‘yes.’

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28

Righteous or wicked, today’s labels of any person could be simply temporary. The first chosen and anointed king of Israel, Saul ended up in a spiritual tragedy. Judas, one of the twelve handpicked by Jesus also ended up in a spiritual tragedy. On the other hand, the good thief on the right side of the cross of Jesus could steal eternal life with repentance and an appeal to Jesus for mercy at the last moment of his life. Many stories of dramatic conversions of many hardcore criminals just before their capital punishments as they encountered Jesus by reading the bible or by the efforts of some people involved in prison ministry are popular.

Ezekiel’s message from the 18th chapter, originally addressed to the depressed deportees reeled under the burden of divine punishment were comforting: man’s no to God is always fraught with consequences, but it is not definitive. It is never the last word. At any time, it can become a yes: “He will live and not die because he has opened his eyes and turned from the sins he had committed” (Eze 18: 28). At times passing through the experience of our own failures and the consequent punishment of God, we may be able to say a more convinced and consistent ‘yes’ to God!

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11 

Jesus at incarnation brought heaven to earth, in the sense that humanity gets a glimpse of heavenly values and perspectives in contrast to earthly values and perspectives. Heaven is not just a place of pleasure and plenty from a worldly perspective but a place of heavenly values and perspectives of life. Letter to Philippians was written sometime in the early fifties, around just twenty years after Jesus’s death. Thus, it is earlier than any written gospel. More than that the poetic session we have listened, precisely Phil 2:6-11, scholars think, must be an adaptation of one of the earliest Christian hymns. Thus, it could be one of the most illuminating summaries of Christian faith and one of the earliest things Christians told about Jesus. Before presenting the hymn that speaks of the heavenly values and perspectives Jesus brought in at incarnation, Paul summarizes the expected value systems and perspectives of the life of the Christian community. This part he summarizes with this verse: “Do not seek your own interest, but rather, that of others. Your attitudes should be the same as Jesus Christ had…” then Paul copies the existing hymn to poetically summarizes the heavenly values and perspectives of Jesus that has to be lived by the Christians. The original hymn starts in this way: “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped…” 

The whole of biblical spirituality and moral theology is summarized in this one verse. Most fundamental and symptomatic sin, the first parents committed and we continue to grab divinity for us. The prerogatives of God are being grabbed. I am opting to decide what is right and wrong for me. The divine irony is that – Jesus, the one who could claim the prerogatives of God – he does not grasp, he lets it go. While we try to become like God – Jesus prefers to be a slave – god accepts the form of a slave. The Greek term used for emptying is ‘kenosis.’ For us sinners, the game is always filling and grabbing. The truth that is foundational is that – God is emptying and he proposes this self-emptying as heavenly value. The law of gift emphasized by John Paul II summarizes this heavenly principle: “Your being increases in the measure you give it away.” God is letting go in contrast to our temptation to grab. 

There was a poor man who prayed daily to God with the request to make him rich. One day God appeared to him and told him to travel to a specific place where he would find a Sanyasi sleeping. He told him that the Sanyasi would give him a precious stone, which would make him the richest in the world. The next morning the man woke up early, reached the place and found the Sanyasi exactly as he was told. He woke him up and asked about the precious stone. The Sanyasi woke up and gave him a stone, which he used as a pillow in the previous night and told him that this may be the precious stone about which God had spoken to him. The man found the stone to be precious; he kept it safe with him. As the dusk opened its hands, his heart started to lose its peace with the worry of safeguarding the precious stone thus the night followed became the restless and sleepless one. Having realized the value of giving rather than grabbing he rushed back to Sanyasi early in the next morning, returned him the precious stone and asked him: “Teach me what you do! Teach me to give away”! It is the same heavenly value and attitude Jesus is proposing to his followers… Like the poor man for a moment, we could be attracted by the values of the world but Paul appeals to us to have the same attitudes and values of Christ. 

Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32

The land promised by God to his people is not just “flowing with milk and honey,” but also one in which wheat, oil and wine abound … (Dt 8:6.10). “On that day, you will invite one another under your vines and fig trees” was the dream cultivated by every Israelite (Zech 3:10).

In a time like ours where everything is mechanized, attention is paid only to the quantity of the products and their commercial value. To talk about a loving relationship with one’s own vineyard would sound a bit naive and pathetic. It was not so in Israel. While he pruned, the peasant caressed, with the moving gaze of a lover, his own vineyard and addressed it with sweet and tender words. The poets have sung often this love and God used it to describe the passion that binds him to his people (Is 5:1-7). Israel is “my fruitful vineyard. Praise her! I, Yahweh, am its keeper; I water it every moment. So that no one will harm it, day and night I guard it” (Is 27:2-3).

Jesus has taken this imagery several times: he spoke of posted workers, in diverse hours, to work in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-15), of the murderous tenants who do not want to deliver the fruits (Mt 21:33-40) and especially he presented himself as the “true vine” (Jn 15:1-8).

The parable of today’s Gospel depicts three characters: a father and two sons. Jesus’ hearers sensed immediately that the father represents God, but they are surprised by the fact that he has two sons. The Son of God is only one, Israel; through the prophet Hosea, the Lord said: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1) and to the Pharaoh, he said: “Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22). To hear about the two sons of God is disconcerting for an Israelite, but it is only the beginning, the continuation of the parable is even more provocative.

At the invitation of his father to go to work in the vineyard, the firstborn zealously and readily answered: Yes, sir (literally: I, sir! like saying, do not think of others, I’m here!), but then did not go (v. 30). But even when he had said yes, he was not at all in accord with the plan of his father and never took it seriously. He had only spoken words, empty words. It recalls another saying of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my heavenly Father” (Mt 7:21).

This firstborn evidently represents the Israelites. Not all the Israelites, of course, but those who, in words, had committed themselves to the covenant and then had reduced them to external rites, worthless ceremonies, convinced that they are right with the Lord because they offered sacrifices, burnt offerings, and prayers. 

The provocations of the parable are not over. The father turned to the second son the request to go to work in the vineyard and the answer was: “I don’t want to.” Then, overcame with remorse, he went (v. 29). The allusion to the hated Gentiles—who are now elevated to the status of children—is explicit. They have not given any formal adherence to the will of the Lord, but they entered first in the kingdom of God.

When Matthew wrote the passage fifty years have passed since the death and resurrection of Christ and the prophecy has already been realized: the Christian communities were composed mainly of former pagans, while the majority of the children of Abraham, who did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah of God, did not enter in the vineyard.

The conclusion of the parable (vv. 31b-32) contains what is perhaps the most provocative statement of Jesus: “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are ahead of you in the kingdom of God.” The verb is in the present; it is a fact: the public sinners who have no religious screen to hide themselves, those who cannot pretend because their condition is obvious to everyone, even to themselves, are at an advantage compared to those who consider themselves righteous. These feel safe and protected by the religious practices that they fulfill faithfully without even realizing their distance from the vineyard of the Lord.

“The publicans and the harlots” who know they are far from God do not delude themselves from doing his will. They are conscious of having said no; they do not try to fool themselves by fulfilling the precepts they themselves invented. They do not soothe the conscience with practices that have nothing in common with the true religion. Their awareness of being poor, weak, sinners in need of help, predisposes them to be first in receiving God’s gift. Today in Christian communities, we come across representatives of both these sons. People who find security in the rituals and customary practices of the church and the other group who really undergo a conversion and live the values and perspectives of Jesus. The second group certainly passed through a ‘no’ to the divine will initially but learning through their failures they have reached a more convinced and consistent ‘Yes’ to God.