Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
One of the key ideas contained in today’s readings is the effect that comes from letting go, letting go of self, letting go of the apparent security that derives from feeling in control. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is responding to his people who accuse God of being arbitrary in handing out rewards and punishment. Ezekiel and his compatriots lived through the period of the Babylonian exile and were no doubt asking the question, ‘Why are good people suffering along with the bad?’ This, of course, raised the age-old issue of why innocent people suffer ̶ a problem that had no solution, since in Hebrew religious tradition it was accepted that good people prosper while bad people go belly up. There was no way of understanding why some good people suffer and some wicked people thrive. This traditional item of Jewish religion seemed to go unchallenged until the writing of the book of Job sometime around 550 B.C.E.
In this brilliant poetic composition Job is portrayed in a folktale as a thoroughly good man and the figure of Satan secures God’s permission to test Job’s virtue and allegiance to God. It should be noted that Satan is a benign character at this stage and not, as in later tradition, the leader of the underworld rebels against God. Anyhow, as a result of Satan’s action Job’s adult children are killed suddenly, his crops are burned, his cattle rustled and he is left penniless and afflicted with a mass of boils. Job’s wife urges him to curse God and die while his friends visit him and argue that he must have done something wrong to be suffering so terribly. After all, they insist, God does not punish good people.
The point made by the writer of Job is that the ways of God are unfathomable and who are we to say that suffering and misfortune are punishments from God for our wrongdoing? Job asks in prayer that he might have his day in court when he could explain to God that there must be some misunderstanding, and towards the end of the book God speaks to him to show him how far above human thought and experience the Almighty is. Job realises he has dealt with things too big for his puny mind and he regrets having even asked the question about the way God serves out reward and punishment.
The bottom line of the book is that ‘stuff happens’ and it is the lot of humans to experience both suffering and joy in a lifetime. Neither of these has anything to do with being good or wicked.
Beyond that, there are no answers.
We live according to our choices, so learn to live with the outcome
Ezekiel 18:25-28 Ezekiel makes the point that good people will live. In other words, they will be one with God and will come to enjoy blessedness. This does not imply that they will not know suffering in life. The wicked, declares Ezekiel, will die insofar as they will choose by their sinful lifestyle to be apart from God and, in the long run, will suffer the pain of separation from Goodness itself.
Ezekiel’s argument is valid: don’t go accusing God of being unfair; you live according to your choices, so learn to live with the outcome.
The psalmist sings of the Lord’s goodness and makes a fervent resolution to learn the ways of God, which lead to goodness, satisfaction and ultimate fulfilment. Here is a poet expressing the value of submitting and ‘letting go’ in order to live according to God’s ways. One of the sound principles of the AA program is that humans need to rely on a higher power because our own sense of control is really an illusion when it comes to beating an addiction or managing our spiritual progress. A calm self-assessment and letting go is more effective than a teeth-grinding determination to take control as a victorious warrior.
The extract from Paul’s letter to the Christians of Philippi, in northern Greece, contains an ardent appeal for unity, respect and an end to self-interest in dealing with each other. Paul puts forward the example of Jesus who emptied himself to become like one of us and then accepted a horrific death motivated by the conviction that it was part of the divine plan. Paul emphasises the final outcome of Jesus life and death, namely, that God raised him up so that all of us would acknowledge Jesus as Lord and pay him the homage that is his due.
The idea is not just to admire the example of Jesus but to imitate his attitude and service
Over the centuries, scholars have so focused on the Christ-hymn in this passage that the major point Paul is making has often been overlooked. The Apostle is referring to the generosity and self-giving of Jesus in order to hold up to the Philippian community an example of Christian attitude and lifestyle. He is urging the Philippians not just to admire the life and character of Jesus but to actively imitate his mindset and self- effacement. The message for us is the same; we are urged to model our behaviour on the attitudes and service shown by the Lord himself.
Later in the same letter Paul refers to the rift that has arisen between two of his fellow workers Euodia (= fragrant) and Syntyche (= fortunate). Both these women have, as Paul puts it, ‘struggled beside me in the work of the gospel,’ and exercise leadership roles in the community. We can only imagine Paul’s disappointment that people who ought to be showing good example are actually at odds with each other and are not displaying the kind of unity and harmony expected of leaders of a Christian community. In signing off at the end of this letter Paul writes, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone.’ The Greek word translated as gentleness is epieikeia, which, as well as gentleness, implies graciousness, forbearance, willing to make allowances, acting in a way that is fit, proper, wholesome and fair.
Without saying it in so many words the Apostle Paul is affirming that there is no room in the Christian community for control freaks who must have their own way. When he writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13) about Christian love (ἀγάπη) he breaks it down into its many practical characteristics. He writes, ‘love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.’
The Greek idea of this kind of love (agápē) is the love and affection that grows out of a sincere appreciation and high regard for someone.
It rises higher than the bond of physical attraction (eros) or even close friendship (philos) because it seeks the good of the other and is willing to ‘let go’ and not exercise any control over the other. Allowing and encouraging another person to blossom and achieve their potential, without our attempting to control their progress, is a mark of true graciousness.
The parable of the two sons in today’s gospel reading has the typical marks of a rabbinic parable. It begins with an open question, ‘What is your opinion?’ which calls for a discussion and focuses the attention of the listener. It then ends with another question seeking a verdict of some kind. It is a story that illustrates the difference between declaration and reality, between talk and action. It reminds us of what Jesus said earlier in Matthew: say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’ – be straight and don’t play the hypocrite in your relationships.
Jesus likens the second son to those in his audience who say one thing and do another, who profess to be blameless but, in fact, are unable to recognise genuine goodness when they see it. John came urging people to turn back to God from their selfish and discriminatory lifestyle, but the religious worthies gave him no credence. After all, they had too much to lose and so could not afford to let go of their comfortable situation. The tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus referred to had nothing to lose and so were open to finding a way of living wholesome lives that would bring them honour and not ongoing shame.
Jesus has difficulty with the hypocrisy of the self-righteous
The first son in the parable allowed himself to be open to a change of heart. Perhaps he initially thought the work in the vineyard was beneath him or maybe he just couldn’t be bothered. But here is a good example of how we never know how the heart can be moved. The first son was able to take an honest look at himself and re-assess his life and attitudes. He saw his error and his lack of generosity and then made a positive move to do better. His ability to let go and not persist in getting his own way shows maturity and a big heart.
Jesus shows up the blindness of people who kid themselves that they are ‘alright’ when they have not taken serious stock of their faults. If we are like them we can easily pass judgement on others while being hoodwinked by our own false sense of superiority. Again, in this parable we can see how Jesus is able to deal with all kinds of people. He can see the potential in those who have made mistakes and have their errors but who are open and honest. He has difficulty, however, with hypocrisy, with the self-righteous who have chosen to close themselves off from the movement of the Spirit because of their two-faced approach to life.
It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit. Noël Coward
For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit. Noam Chomsky
One summer two redneck Gold Coast motorcycle policemen were chasing a Porsche speeding south toward Tweed Heads. When the suspect flew across the border into New South Wales the first policeman suddenly pulled over.
His partner pulled in behind him and shouted, ‘Hey, sarge, why did you stop?’
The sarge replied, ‘He’s in New South Wales now. They’re an hour ahead of us, so we’ll never catch him.’