Friday, September 23, 2011

Is God Fair? Round Two: The 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time


Apparently Holy Mother Church wants us to learn something about God’s justice and mercy, because the themes of this Sunday’s Readings repeat, with variation, those of last week’s.

Last week we had to deal with the difficult Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which raised the issue of whether God is “unfair” in his merciful generosity.  (On a side note, a good friend and fellow scholar passes on a suggestion from a saintly priest that the “denarius” in last week’s parable may be identified with the Eucharist, the “daily wage” or “daily bread” that sustains us for Today so that we may live to see Tomorrow.  Beautiful!)

This week the topic of God’s “fairness” rises again at the beginning of the First Reading:


Reading 1 Ez 18:25-28
Thus says the LORD:
You say, “The LORD's way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed,
he does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.

The current Lectionary is brilliant and a great improvement over what we had prior to the Council (Vatican II), but one could wish at times that more of the context was included, especially for some of these First Readings.

In the present case, for example, one really needs to look up Ezekiel 18 and read the entire chapter to grasp the significance of the few verses we read in Mass.

Perhaps the assumption is that the homilist will do this.  He ought to.

In context, we discover that the people of Israel whom Ezekiel addresses have adopted a kharma-like concept that one’s fate in life is already determined by the righteousness or wickedness of one’s parents.  Thus they quoted a proverb: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

The people of Israel were using this concept to explain their current political, economic, and military setbacks as divine punishment for the faults of the previous generation: “We are experiencing the results of our parent’s behavior.”

What is surprising to our modern sensibilities is that this supposed arrangement of reality was considered right and fair by the people of Israel.  When Ezekiel tries to preach personal accountability—that each individual receives the punishment or reward for their own actions—the people complain: “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” (Ezek 18:19).  In fact, it is the doctrine of personal accountability—each judged for his own sins or merit—that the people rebel against when they say: “The Lord’s way is not fair!”

What seemed unfair to the people of Israel was particularly the idea that a wicked person could repent, turn to God, and in this way gain life and escape destruction.  The possibility of repentance and salvation seemed to be a scandal.

While we don’t share the Israelites’ kharma-like mentality in contemporary culture, we, like them, have our own ways of blaming our parents for our dysfunctions.  Granted, all of our parents were imperfect and did things that have hampered or harmed our personal development.  At the same time, any good therapist or counselor will tell you that the patient who gets stuck at the point of blaming his parents is not on the road to recovery. 

The oracle of Ezekiel proclaimed in this Sunday’s Mass is a wake-up call for us to stop blaming other people, particularly the previous generation, for the problems we are in—specifically, our spiritual problems.  Ezekiel calls us to take responsibility for our actions, to repent of our sin, to turn to God and receive life.

A comment is in order on Ezekiel’s doctrine of reward and punishment, which seems too clean-cut for us.  According to Ezekiel, the evil doer dies, and the righteous man lives.  Period. 

But life isn't so simple.

How then are we to understand what Ezekiel is saying?

I would suggest, first of all, that we not neglect the natural and literal sense of Ezekiel’s statement.

True, we all know situations where good people have suffered or died untimely, or when wicked people have seemed to prosper for a long time. 

At the same time, there is a natural connection between virtue and life, vice and death. 

Those who are faithful to their spouses, hard working, practice moderation in eating and drinking, treat others with honesty, pray, etc. do live longer, healthier liveson average

On the other hand, vice shortens one’s life.  Statistics show that the average violent criminal has a life expectancy of just three years counting from his or her first violent offense.  Gang members in America live, on average, to the ripe old age of 20 years and 5 months.

However, if all we consider is temporal life, counter-examples are easy to find and Ezekiel’s words do not always hold true.  Ultimately the “life” and “death” of which God speaks through Ezekiel are the same as the “life” and “death” discussed in Genesis 2-3, and by Jesus in John 6: “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:50-51).  This is supernatural life.  Eternal life.

The Responsorial Psalm praises God for the generosity of his mercy.  Here again, our word “mercy” is Hebrew hesed, “covenant faithfulness.”  Hebrew employs an honorific plural to emphasize concepts, so we find in this psalm the term hesadekha, “your mercies.”  This means “your Great Mercy,” not that God has more than one kind of mercy:


Responsorial Psalm Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14.
R. (6a) Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your love are from of old.
The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not;
in your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and teaches the humble his way.
R. Remember your mercies, O Lord.

Let the lector who opts for the shorter Second Reading (Phil 2:1-5) this week be anathema!  How could we fail to read the beautiful and famous Christ-hymn of Philippians 2?

Reading 2 Phil 2:1-11
Brothers and sisters:
If there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love,
any participation in the Spirit,
any compassion and mercy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,
united in heart, thinking one thing.
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also for those of others.

Have in you the same attitude
that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul calls us to a participation in the “Spirit” which is characterized by “compassion and mercy.”  This is the Spirit of the God who is eager to welcome back the sinner who repents, irrespective of his previous sins or those of his parents. 

We are called to imitate the selflessness of Christ, who never grasped anything for himself or was jealous of his own privileges, unlike the first workers from last week’s Gospel.  In Christ's perfect and gratuitous gift of himself, even to the point of death, we see God’s abounding mercy perfectly demonstrated.  Yet in Christ’s exaltation and glorification at the right hand of the Father, we see God’s justice perfectly displayed, since it is only just that Christ’s self-emptying should be rewarded with such an honor.  In this way God’s mercy and justice embrace.  This is God's "fairness."

Finally, the Gospel:

Gospel Mt 21:28-32
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
"What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.'
He said in reply, 'I will not, '
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, 'but did not go.
Which of the two did his father's will?"
They answered, "The first."
Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him."

Here we are faced with two groups that correspond to the two groups described by Ezekiel in the First Reading: virtuous ones who turn away, and wicked ones who repent.

The tax collectors and prostitutes who are entering the Kingdom of God correspond to the son who refused to go into the vineyard at first, but afterward did.

The Pharisees correspond to the son who promised to go work, but did not.

Notice the common use of the motif "working in the vineyard" from last week's parable.  The vineyard is the Kingdom of God, which is also the People of God, manifested on earth, in space and time, in our own day as the Church.

It’s important to emphasize that the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of whom Jesus speaks are those who repented and changed their lifestyle at the preaching of John the Baptist!  Jesus is not saying that lifestyles of extortion and/or sexual promiscuity are compatible with the Kingdom of God.

The Pharisees Jesus castigates were people who had been trained in virtue from their youth, and gave lip service to the principles of morality expressed in the Scripture, but were skilled at finding legalistic loopholes that would permit a lifestyle of self-indulgence (Mark 7:10-13), even at the expense of others (see Matt 12:40).  Not every Pharisee was like this, however (Mark 12:32-34).

Jesus indicates that the repentance of notorious public sinners (the tax collectors and prostitutes) should have been a sign of the authenticity of the ministry of John in the eyes of the Pharisees.  They should have recognized the principle that “by their fruit you shall know them” (Matt 7:20).  The fruits of repentance brought by John authenticated his ministry.

Mother Church is raising her voice at us—yes, even yelling at us—this Sunday to wake up and not be like these Pharisees.  How not to be like a Pharisee?  Don’t leave Mass thinking the Gospel wasn’t speaking about you.  Maybe we haven’t practice extortion or committed sex acts for pay, but in Jesus standards, a lustful look is adultery (Matt 5:28), and heaping up money for ourselves, even by honest means, is the worship of a different god (Matt 6:24).  We, too, need to repent.

The Good News is the “mercies” of God, that in order to forgive the repentant, he gives himself completely for us and to us, having taken on the form of a man, then the form of a slave, then the form of bread ...

4 comments:

mrowley said...

Brilliant! Thank you for opening my eyes.

thedivinelamp said...

I enjoy your posts on the Sunday readings but would like to ask the following questions: Is there a difference between liturgical preaching, which seeks to expound the meaning of the lectionary texts, and scientific exegesis? If so, might not this explain the limited extent of some of the readings?

John Bergsma said...

@divinelamp: Yes, surely there is a difference, but my point is a simpler one: sometimes the readings, especially the first, are so abbreviated that the meaning of the passage is obscured for the liturgical assembly. I'm not trying to be overly critical. I know it was a challenge to put the lectionary together. It involved prudential judgements, and a good job was done. That's why I said gently, "One could wish ..."

thedivinelamp said...

Dr. Bergsma, Thanks for responding. I wasn't trying to suggest an overly critical attitude on your part, after all, you did describe the current lectionary as "brilliant" and a "great improvement" over the pre-Vatican II version (though the simpler pre-Vat. II version was not without its value, particularly for a busy clergy). I was seeking a statement that there is a reason why the readings are as they are-often appearing to be truncated or obscure.