Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 29, 2002
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Ezechiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-9,10,14; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32)
When we combine the reading from Ezechiel with the brief parable in Matthew's Gospel, it is not difficult to see what the church wants us to be reflecting on and praying about in today's liturgy.
They are all about personal responsibility, about accountability for our choices in life, about integrity and living up to our word.
When we read Ezechiel's account, it strikes us as reasonable enough after 2000 years of hearing the Gospel message. A person may have done evil earlier in life but there is the possibility of a change of heart, of repentance. And with that goes the possibility that someone who has been living a good life might stray later on and lose their way. The main point is that God takes us where we are, not where we might have been in the past. For good or ill.
But that sense, in Ezechiel, of personal responsibility for our lives represented an advance in Israel's understanding of God's dealings with us. Earlier, in major passages like the giving of the 10 commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God was seen as punishing individuals for the sake of deeds committed by their ancestors. In that earlier stage of development what was central was the clan, the tribe, the people. There was not yet a full sense of the dignity of the individual. Listen to Exodus:
You shall not carve idols for yourselves . . . you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the Lord, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Through the preaching of the prophets the Lord was gradually teaching the people, leading them to see the dignity -- and the responsibility -- of each person, each individual. As Jesus put it: not a hair of our head goes uncounted, we are each more valuable than a hundred sparrows.
And Matthew reports Jesus taking a further step. It is not what we say, what we proclaim, what we profess, but what we do, how we live, that counts. Elsewhere he says, "It's not those who say, 'Lord, Lord' but those who do the will of my Father who will enter the kingdom." (Truth to tell, it's clear that Jesus was always skittish around those who made much of their practice of religion; he seems always to have had a suspicion of hypocrisy.)
And he brings the point home in a shocking way when he reminds the priests and elders who it was that took John the Baptist's preaching seriously and believed in his message. The prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom before the publicly pious. The outcasts, those we might be tempted to look down our noses at.
After 2000 years of proclamation of the Gospel it's an easy homily to give. The messages are clear, and they are just as challenging and valid today as when they were first uttered.
But I believe I would be failing my responsibility to proclaim God's word if I were to leave it at that and not challenge us to move to a deeper level.
Our God is a God of history, of incarnation. God speaks to us where we are now. To us in our present situation.
And where are we, today, right now? We are at a perilous moment in our journey as a people and as a world.
In a short time --- perhaps before this community gathers again next Sunday --- our legislators in Washington will make the most serious decision they ever have to make: the choice of giving our president the power to take us and our world into war.
Some of them have made quite public speeches challenging the administration's policy, but will that just be their "Lord, Lord"? From all the commentaries it appears that, short of a miracle -- and surely we must be praying for one -- many of them will over-ride their own consciences and vote for the war, because after all the posturing they are concerned finally for their re-election. They will ignore the counsel of the generals, who know war first-hand; they will ignore the all ut unanimous voice of the rest of the world trying to slow down the juggernaut.
But that choice will e theirs. What of my responsibility in this? What of yours?
If you favor the position of the president and administration, you have the responsibility to act on your conviction. But what of those who believe that position is morally wrong? Can I respect your position? Can you respect mine?
There are two serious spiritual issues at stake here. I'm not talking about the political or military assessment about what is to be done. Those are prudential judgments and intelligent people can disagree about the wisdom of one course or the other. I can be wrong; you can be wrong; the president can be 'wrong' in such choices. What I'm talking about is our attitudes, our souls, the level of our integrity where we are each called to mutual respect and serious listening to points of view at variance from our own. Leaders in our government have taken to labeling anyone who might dare to disagree or criticize or call into question their views, as people lacking in patriotism. We've seen this before, in every war in our history. In the 50s if you disagreed you were labeled 'soft on Communism'. This readiness to denounce those who disagree not only runs counter to all that our country stands for, all that we will claim to be fighting for if we do go to war; it speaks of cowardice and manipulation and mean-spirited attacks on decent people who happen to hold an opposing view..
And there is a second spiritual peril in the air: the claim that "God is on our side." We sang that phrase during the civil rights era, in "We Shall Overcome", and only the Lord knows whether we were guilty of arrogance as we did so. But when our president is reported as saying he believes he has a divine mandate to fight this war, it gets really scary. Because that is just what those who are attacking us believe about their cause.
The reality is that our biblical tradition does not tell us whose political side God is on. It tells us only that God is on the side of the innocent. Whoever those innocents are: the women and children of Iraq who will suffer and die, or the innocent U.S. men and women who will bear the brunt of the war by giving their lives.
So each of us will bear responsibility for our own difficult choices. It is a serious prospect and we wonder where we can go for wisdom to make them.
I believe the answer lies in today's second reading, in Paul's letter to the Philippians.
Biblical scholars tell us that in that passage we just read, where Paul tells us that we must have the attitude of Christ, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at," Paul is actually citing a very early Christian hymn. Just think: even before there were written materials for the New Testament the communities were composing and singing hymns about Jesus. And what did they want to communicate about him, what was his meaning for them? They didn't focus on things like miracles. No, they focused on his fidelity to his Father, to an extreme of obedience that led him not only to take on human form but to become a slave, dying a slave's death on a cross. It was because of that humility that the Father crowned him with glory and made him Lord.
As religious people our choices and decisions are not ultimately a matter of human calculation. As Christians the issue is our conformity to the mind and heart and example of Jesus, who was not afraid of being mocked and put to death for his life and teaching. Each of us will be responsible for the choices we make, willy nilly, whether we support the war or speak out against it. We can't escape and place the responsibility on our leaders; each of us is too valuable in God's eyes for that.
But let us pray and beg God to let us make our choices with the mind and heart and spirit of Jesus the obedient one. That alone is what counts.