Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 25, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


(Based on Ezechiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32)


In last Sunday’s liturgy we heard the parable in which the field hands accused the owner of the vineyard of being unfair because he paid the latecomers the same wage as he gave those who had labored in the sun all day. The landowner was of course the Lord. And he said to them,” Are you envious because I am generous?”


And today we once again see the same issue at work. God is judged unjust in dealing with us.


The challenge for us in both sets of readings is the call to let go of our way of looking at things. We are being called to take on the mind (and heart) of the Lord. It’s a life-long task, something we have to learn over and over. God’s ways are not ours.


Let’s just think about the situation in which Ezechiel writes. In those days the whole focus was on collective responsibility. It was all about the tribe, the clan the people. The individual’s life and deeds didn’t really count. Earlier in the chapter from which we just read, Ezechiel receives this charge from God:


Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, “The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’? [18:1]


The common thinking was that the guilt of one generation was passed on, that the individual shared in the guilt of earlier generations. God rejects that view fiercely:


As I live, says the Lord God: I swear that there shall no longer be anyone among you who will repeat this proverb in Israel. For all lives are mine; the life of the father is like the life of the son; both are mine. [18:34] And he goes on: The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. The virtuous man’s virtue shall be his own, as the wicked man’s wickedness shall be his own. . . . Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, each one according to his ways, says the Lord God. [18:20, 29]


Ezechiel has been called the prophet of individual responsibility. We can’t hide behind the context created by others. We can’t blame them for our choices. The fact that others have treated me unjustly doesn’t let me off the hook. We may not be responsible for the hand we have been dealt in life, but what we responsible for is the way we play that hand.


It is a demanding teaching, but also a glorious one. The Lord values each one of us so highly that God will not take away our freedom – even if we use it to reject his love.


We all say we want freedom, but in reality we are threatened by the fact that with freedom comes responsibility. I was reminded of that wonderful comedian Flip Wilson. You recall how we knew that at some point in each program he would say or do something outlandish; then he would take on that impish smile he was so good at. And we knew what was coming: “The devil made me do it!” And we laughed. We laughed because we knew he didn’t really believe that. He knew he was responsible, and we knew that he knew it. He was only jiving us. We laughed because he was holding the mirror up to us, showing our own behavior in trying to push responsibility onto anyone but ourselves. We blame our parents; some teacher; the conditions of our birth; everybody else but ourselves for the choices we make.


We have an incredible dignity as free creatures. That is what it means to be made in the image of God: a God who freely creates free beings who are able to stand face to face with the Lord.


At the end of the chapter in Ezechiel God says: I take no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies. Return and live! [18:32]


The gift of freedom brings with it responsibility. And that pinches. God’s ways are not our ways.


When we turn to the Gospel passage from Matthew we find ourselves with Jesus and his disciples in the Temple area. Remember how we have been moving with him from Galilee up to Jerusalem where he was going to confront the chief priests and elders, the religious leaders of Israel. Luke put it strongly: “He set his face like flint.” Now he has had the gall to enter the Temple area and cause a ruckus by overturning the tables of the money-changers.


And so he is challenged, just as the people challenged Yahweh in the days of Ezechiel. “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” In our contemporary speech we hear them saying, “Who the hell do you think you are?”


How does answer? He uses their question to put them on the spot. He calls them to accountability. He makes them confront their attempt to avoid responsibility for the challenge put before them by the preaching of the prophet John the baptizer. They had a choice but they avoided any commitment either way. If John was from God. why didn’t you follow him? And if they say he was merely human they will lose their power over the people who did reform at his word. They’re too afraid of public opinion and loss of their power.


And then through today’s brief story of the two sons he accuses them of talking the talk but not walking the walk. They had a choice but the consequences would demand a radical change in their lives. Imagine how they must have reacted when he compared them unfavorably to people they considered the dregs of society: even the tax collectors and prostitutes saw what John was about and reformed their lives! They accepted responsibility. They walked the walk.


Our freedom is a grand gift from the Lord, but it calls us to the difficult challenge to assume responsibility for our lives.


How is it possible to accept that burden and not shuffle it off onto others?


It is only with the gift of God’s grace that we can respond to the challenge of each moment with the deed of love. And God’s grace can take many forms. One of them is the example of those who do it, who make the possibility real before our eyes, who embody responsible freedom  I’d like to reflect with you on two examples. 


I think first of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for all those long years on Robbin Island. After about 15 years, one morning the authorities come and open the door to his cell. He is free to walk out! He can go home. There’s just one small thing: he has to commit to stop protesting apartheid.


The door is open. And Mandela says ‘no.’ He chooses, freely, to stay in prison. They have offered him what people would commonly call ‘freedom.’ But he knows that by accepting that gift he would be sacrificing a deeper gift: his own interior freedom and integrity.


He had learned God’s ways.


Then there is a more recent example. During the commemorations of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 you may have seen the story of the two French film-makers who had been producing a documentary on the ordinary life and routine of a fire company in lower Manhattan. It happened that on that fateful day they were filming in the very lobby of one of the towers when it all began. They saw bodies hurtling past the windows. And they watched as the firemen turned around and went up the stairwells, when anyone would have understood if they had run to save themselves. And they came down and went back up again to bring more individuals to safety, over and over.


On the occasion of the memorial charley Rose interviewed the two film-makers and asked them how it all affected them. Each, in his own way, spoke of the profound impact on their lives. They didn’t focus on the tragedy, they could only marvel at the behavior of the firemen whom they had been filming for some time. One of them said that seeing them do what they did changed his whole understanding of what life is all about. After witnessing what those very ordinary men did he couldn’t go back to the superficial things that had seemed so important to him before that day 


They learned God’s way: the way of free commitment to give one’s life and self for others – in the present moment, in action.


And it’s not simply a matter of the big heroes up on the silver screen. We have the grace of such examples all around us, every day. Every one of us knows someone who does unbelievable acts of care in the face of conditions we could scarcely imagine. And they do them day after day, walking the walk. We belong to a communion of saints. What image comes to mind when we hear or say that phrase? It is not a reference to these people up on the stained-glass windows around us. They are there as examples, to remind us of the daily example of the unsung ones with whom we rub shoulders in the supermarket or hair salon or at the day-care center or the seniors’ residence.


As we receive the life of Jesus, the greatest of the holy ones, who modeled for us what it means to be free by laying down his life for us, let’s simply praise and bless our God for the gift of our dignity as members of his communion. And then ask for the gift of free commitment to life in his kingdom.