Life is promised to those who hear and do what is right; death to those who choose “sin.” We pray for the freedom and openness to God’s call and invitation to live gracefully in the tension between our strong wills and God’s gentle, but insistent stomping on our toes.
We hear in today’s First Reading a few verses from a rather long chapter from the prophet Ezekiel. The whole chapter reads like a textbook from our Law School. The sections cover various eventualities, but always the theme is that there is life for those who choose righteousness and death for those who do not. We hear kind of an argument which God, through the prophet, is having with Israel. God is not fair? God reverses this and asks the House of Israel if their ways are the “unfair” ways by their turning from God’s love to serve false gods and their own false sense of what life is.
There is a secondary theme as well. Israel as a collective nation has been addressed often as sinful and have been threatened with total national abandonment or exile. Here we find the prophet addressing the question of the individual’s personal freedom to turn from God’s ways and then turn back again. The father is not guilty for the son’s sin, but only the son.
There are consequences to actions. Israel as a nation is compared to one person who by choosing wickedness chooses death. As well, a person who chooses virtuous living chooses life. God is seen as fair by allowing free choices to worship and serve God or false idols.
The Gospel is one more “stick-it-to-me” parable which is slowly getting Jesus in deep trouble with the religious leaders of his day. The great thing is that he just keeps saying his truth, his mission. The parable of last week’s Gospel, the “vineyard” which the Elders know to be the scriptural image for the nation Israel leads to the parable of the gospel for today. Just as in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel, so in our Gospel today there are also two sons. The first son is asked to go into the vineyard, but says “no.” He later changes his mind and goes. The second says “yes sir,” but does not go. Jesus then asks his listeners which of the two did the father’s will. Of course, their correct answer strengthens Jesus’ case against them.
They had seen and heard John and said ”no” to and about him and then did not change their minds. John had invited them into the “new vineyard” of which he was the announcer. While they continue to say “no” to Jesus, tax collectors and prostitutes who in former times had said “no” have changed, and are living their “yes.”
Here is essential Christianity. The tax collectors, prostitutes in their pasts, and we too have, in our lives, said “no” to God’s call to “Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God.” Perfection is our origin and orientation, but not our practice.
Recently a man told me that he did not go to church any more, because there were nothing but hypocrites in there. I told him there was always room for one more; he didn’t like that. I was stepping on his toes a little bit. We are indeed holy hypocrites; we have said one thing and done the opposite. If we are to live gracefully into our futures then we have to live gracefully with our pasts. Hypocrites seem not to be able to admit and live with their histories. By our believing in Jesus’ call of mercy we admit our having said “no,” but in another sense, we admit Jesus into our present that we might more eagerly go into his “vineyard.”
With us it is sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no,” but for Jesus it always was, is now, and ever will be, “yes!” Our futures do not redeem our pasts; Jesus is the Redeemer. Our futures will need redeeming as well and Jesus’ “yes!” allows us to walk His ways and not fear our stepping on anybody’s toes nor tripping over our own perfectionistic feet.
So often we say “no” to God’s call, because we hear our fears to trust. With prayer and reflection our actions reverse our natural fearful hesitations and we do “yes.” Trust in God’s love does not do away with our natural timidity. Even when our actions are a fearful “no” Jesus is the eternal redemptive “yes” which frees us to rise again to go into the Owners vineyard.
“O Lord, remember the words you spoke to me, your servant, which made me live in hope and consoled me when I was downcast.” Ps. 119, 49
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