1990 Sept 30 – 26th Sun Ord Time (Prison Writings)
26th Sun in Ord Time Cycle A
EZ 18: 25-28
Phil. 2: 1-11
Mt 21: 18-32
“Is It My Way That is Unfair, Or Rather, Are Not Your Ways Unfair?” EZ. 18 : 25
Chapter 18 of Ezekiel begins with God reciting the often-repeated proverb. “The parents ate the sour grapes, but the children got the sour taste.” This proverb supported the notion that children suffer for the sins of their parents. This proverb wisdom was a well-accepted truth in Ezekiel’s time; especially since Israel was suffering under the burden of the Babylonian Empire, most of its leading citizens were already in exile, a puppet government was installed in Jerusalem and in just a few years the Temple and Jerusalem itself will be destroyed and all its inhabitants be put to death or lead into exile. Most people in Ezekiel’s time believed that God was punishing them for the sins of their parents. Many believed there was no hope for them, no reason to carry on. The people were suffering under a great collective depression. God tells Ezekiel never to use this proverb again because it is not true; it is not God’s way to punish the children for the sins of the parents.
Like a seasoned attorney, God argues a position for personal responsibility. God tells the people that each person must bear the responsibility for his or her own actions; blame cannot be allocated to others. In Chapter 18 five “test cases” are presented by God concerning “fathers and children”, showing that each is responsible for deeds done whether evil or good. (VV 3-24)
Chapter 18 concludes with this week’s text. God quotes the people as complaining, “The Lords way is not fair!” God asks them whose ways are truly unfair? With God’s teaching of personal responsibility everyone is responsible for their own actions regardless of the sins of their parents. Then God goes on to say that should a virtuous person turn away from virtue and sin and die, it will be because of their sin and all past virtues will be of no use. Should a wicked person turn from their wickedness and do good they shall live because of the good they do. With personal responsibility everyone has a chance to do good and be virtuous regardless of their past or the past of their parents. Likewise, there are no sure things: everyone, even the virtuous, must continue to do well or risk suffering the effects of a sinful life. Are not God’s ways of personal responsibilities fairer than the accepted belief of collective guilt held at the time of Ezekiel?
This was good news for the people of Ezekiel’s day. Israel was suffering because of past mistakes of its leaders and its people. Soon the city of Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed and its people killed or taken into exile. Their situation was very bleak but not hopeless. The primary concern for the people was their own survival and the survival of their faith. God gives them hope in this week’s lesson. Now, by individuals taking personal responsibility for their actions, obeying God with their whole heart can they move on, survive and continue the Faith journey as the chosen people.
The principle of personal responsibility was an important building block for the prophet Isaiah during the exile that developed the whole notion of redemptive suffering and the suffering servant, ideas so important to the New Testaments understanding of Jesus. This week’s first reading also serves as a great introduction to this weeks Gospel and the parable of the two sons.
“Which of The Two Did What The Father Wanted?” Matt. 21:32
The lesson in this week’s Gospel vineyard parable from Matthew is up front, simple and obvious. An owner of a vineyard had two sons. He asked both of his sons to work in his vineyard. One said yes, but didn’t go and other said no but decided to go anyway. Who did the Fathers will? Easy, the one who said no and worked anyway. In Matthew’s Gospel the parable has a more powerful and dramatic impact than its upfront, simple and obvious internal lesson. What defines this parables importance is where it is placed in the Gospel.
We find our selves in the last week of Jesus’ life. He has already pulled off a major street demonstration with his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples turned the whole capitol city on its ear. (21:1-10). Jesus immediately goes to the Temple for his major assault on the temple moneychangers in a clear act of non-violent resistance and ecclesiastical-civil disobedience. (vv 12-15)
On the very next day in the scene that occurs just before this weeks text, Jesus is back in the Temple teaching the people when he is confronted by the “Chief Priest and the Elders” with the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Using an old rabbinical ploy Jesus asked them a question in return. He tells them if they answer his questions, he’ll answer theirs. Jesus asked them by what authority did John the Baptist baptize? The chief priest and elders were caught in an embarrassing public position. If they say John’s authority came from God, then why didn’t they support him, but if they say his authority was human based they would be in trouble with the people who believed John had been a great prophet. They argued amongst themselves not knowing how to answer. Finally they told Jesus they did not know. Then Jesus told them he’d not answer their question either. (VV 23-27)
Jesus was not going to let the chief priest and elders off the hook about their lack of support for John. We begin this weeks Gospel with Jesus asking them what they thought of the parable he was about to tell. It is here that Matthew has Jesus tell the parable of the two sons. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the chief priest and elders the rhetorical question, “Which of the two sons did what the Father wanted?” Now our up front, simple and obvious parable has a powerful accusatory bent to it, all because of its placement in the Gospel story. Jesus’ rhetorical question is a rhetorical trap. Because of their ambivalence on John, the Chief priest and elders in the minds of Jesus and the people were acting out in real life the role of the son in the parable who said yes to the Father but did not fulfill their promise. When they answered Jesus’ question to the end of the parable they were exposing their own hypocrisy. The parable is not a story after all. It’s rather a description of what was actually going on.
Jesus then became brutally frank with the Chief Priest and Elders. He told them that the tax collector and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before them because they heard John’s message and put their faith in him while they, the religious leaders, who should have know better, never did accept John or his message.
This weeks vineyard parable and the context we find it fulfills the overall theme of reversed expectations found in last weeks vineyard parable and will find in the next two Gospel parables. It also illustrates the deep contempt that Jesus held the leaders of his faith. It is not surprising that these very same chief priests and elders will seek to take his life, repeating the same mistake they made with John the Baptist.
Personal Conversion in Need of Humility:
This weeks Gospel parable was directly meant for the Chief Priests and Elders. Though Jesus accused them of failing in their duties, he also was inviting them to a personal conversion. In many ways the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who Jesus said would enter the Kingdom of Heaven first were more predisposed to the message of John the Baptist and the call of Jesus than were the Chief Priest and Elders. Their sinfulness was public knowledge. Probably not a day went by in their lives that they were not made aware of their sinful state. When John invited them and Jesus to repent, change their lives and be saved they readily responded.
The Chief Priest and elders had a more difficult problem because their sins were subtler. They believed they were already the righteous ones. As the leaders of the Jewish faith and enforcers of the Law they were concerned with the matters of law keeping, ritual and moral purity for them, God’s favor depended upon how faithfully the laws were observed; the laws according to their interpretation. They practiced a bargaining faith where salvation could be purchased with good behavior. They also enjoyed a privileged status because of their official position. They grew rich from their keeping of the Temple and were welcomed in the circles of the rich and the powerful. Jesus’ claim of a loving and forgiving God who favored mercy, over judgment, a sincere and repentant heart over the observance of the laws and rituals was not in their self-interest.
The Personal conversion Jesus called all people to, required a change in lifestyle, and renewed humility that the Chief Priest and elders could not afford to make and still keep their privileged status and self righteous spirit.
“Your Attitude Must Be Christ’s.” Phil. 2:5
St. Paul was the quintessential Pharisee. More than anyone else, we know of, Paul embodied the righteous attitude of his fellow Pharisees, Chief Priest and Elders. Paul like so many other religious leaders in Israel, believed himself righteous because of his strict observance of the law. We first read about Paul at the stoning of St. Steven (Acts.7: 58). After he witnessed Stevens murder Paul took an active role in the persecution of the Church, Jesus’ message of unconditional love and forgiveness threatens Paul’s reality as it did the Chief Priest and elders. He saw the followers of Jesus as a threat to his faith. When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus his life was changed forever. It was his direct experience of the person of Christ that converted Paul, the self-righteous Pharisees to Paul’s the love over law, Apostle for Christ.
In this weeks second reading Paul pleads with the Philippians to let the spirit of love, compassion and humility rule their communal life. Paul challenges them to make Christ’s attitude their own. Paul then recites one of the Churches earliest, most elegant and cherished Christological hymns. The hymn describes in poetic terms the essences of the Incarnation. At its core, the Incarnation, is the humility of God lived out in our world through the person of Christ. Christ’s glory rests on his giving up his divine status to become a human being and embracing a humiliating death on the cross.
Since in Christ we have our model and way to eternal life we must empty ourselves of all self-righteous trappings even the righteous trappings of our own religious beliefs. In all things Paul tells us, to take on the attitude of Christ. In this way we will not fall victim of our own sense of self worth as the Chief Priest and elders did in today’s Gospel and disown the prophets of our times who follow in tradition of John the Baptist and Jesus.
90 10 30 – Quack, Quack, I’m A Duck, Quack Quack!:
Some days are better than others and other days aren’t so good but generally speaking I’m doing better now than I have during the whole time down. Life has taken on a certain predictable rhythm; my days are more or less the same. My prayer life is full and regular. I’m getting good reading material. I normally put in three full days of work for each weekly reflection. My exercise routine is falling in place, three half hour sessions a week in the weight room and on the off days I do 360 push-ups and sit-ups. I try to walk about an hour a day within the cellblock. The food is still very bad but I am surviving with supplementing my diet with junk food from the Jail store. I enjoy getting the Des Moines Register and the Sunday New York Times. The high point of the week comes on Tuesday and Friday when I celebrate the Eucharist with Fr. Leonard Kaiser. I’ve been spending more time with the guys in my cell block, worrying less that I get my intended reading done, playing more card games. Nothing like a good game of Hearts or Spades to bring out the worst of my competitive nature. As I get to know the men I’m doing time with better, I quickly put my own hard times in perspective. How different it is to be locked up for what you believe in and for doing the right thing. It is a whole different experience to be locked up for a crime you wish you hadn’t committed with the grief and shame that follows. Earl got 30 years. His snitching on Pops didn’t help him much. John was moved to another cellblock after he caused a disturbance in the dining hall. He’s hoping to establish a mental incompetence defense using his past documented post-Vietnam syndrome. They are talking about sending him to the Federal hospital in Rochester, MN for an evaluation. Carl is still awaiting sentencing. He is looking at 50 years. Last Thursday I met his wife and 2-year-old boy. It is sad to think what the young woman and her son are looking forward to. Young Bill has been put in a halfway house and Elmer is confident he will beat his murder rap. His trial has been pushed to November