Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"The Faithfulness of God— Where Justice and Mercy Meet": The Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the perennial questions of humanity is as follows: Is God just? In the readings for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we find a series of passages that address the question of God’s justice, beginning with the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel.

First Reading: Ezekiel 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.

In order to understand the nature of the prophet’s declaration, it is helpful to view it in context, for throughout the first 17 chapters of Ezekiel, the prophet has repeatedly declared that Judah is about to be sent into exile in Babylon as punishment for their sins.

In fact, one of the primary reasons that Judah was to be sent into exile was due to their corporate “heart problem” described by Ezekiel and Jeremiah at length, a problem that centers on failing to circumcise their hearts not just their bodies. As a result, Deut 30:1 states that the exile is the inevitable covenant curse for this inability to follow the law. 

Against this backdrop, Ezekiel 18 deals with whether or not it is just of God to hold future generations accountable for the sins of their fathers, for it appears that some within Judah appeared to be questioning the faithfulness of God in holding them accountable for the sins of previous generations.

While it is true that the sins of previous generations had negative consequences on subsequent generations and did contribute to the triggering of the covenant curse of exile, God's response through Ezekiel makes clear that he is not unjust to individual members of the covenant community in holding the community corporately responsible for sin. 

Instead, God is clear that when an individual turns from sin to walk in obedience, he will live; while those who turn from the ways of the Lord to unrighteousness will be held accountable for their sin. As a result, each individual member within the covenant community is responsible before God, which leads nicely into the responsorial psalm, for there Israel is requesting that Yahweh would lead them in his ways in order to bring them true salvation.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25:6a

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.

Here in Psalm 25, Yahweh’s salvation is linked to both forgiveness and guidance in the path of obedience. It is interesting to note that a very similar hope is expressed in the prophets, in particular, that Yahweh would demonstrate his salvation before all the nations when he brings Israel back from exile.

At this time, all twelve tribes of Israel would be granted a new heart, where the law would be written and God’s Spirit would dwell (Jer 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36-37) whereby God himself would demonstrate his righteousness in saving Zion from their sin (Isa 46:12-13, 51:1-6).

Linked to this hope is the promise for the restoration of two houses, the house of David and the house of God’s temple, where in both cases it is hoped that all nations will benefit in this restoration (Isaiah 2, 9:1-9, 11, 55:1-5; Ezekiel 37).

Also connected to the restoration of Israel was the mysterious suffering servant, who through his atoning sacrifice served to restore the nation of Israel (Isaiah 53).

While Judah had returned to the land around 538 BC, it is clear that pivotal aspects of the aforementioned prophecies were not completely fulfilled, in particular, the ten northern tribes remained outside of Palestine, the temple was not fully restored, and the house of David was not rebuilt.

In fact, while individual Israelites may have received the heart restoration promised in the prophets, the outpouring of God’s Spirit on the scale promised in Ezekiel does not appear to have happened, an outpouring which would enable Israel to walk in the ways of Yahweh.

This serves as a good transition to the second reading, for through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God demonstrates his righteousness by fulfilling the hope of Israel.

Second Reading: Option A - Philippians 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.

While the Philippians hymn has many challenging interpretative aspects to it, the general point is clear: Jesus did not use his divine prerogatives as something to be hoarded but rather he was obedient to the point of death on the Cross. As a result, Jesus was exalted in his resurrection and granted a name above all names.

In light of such a model, Paul then proceeds to tell the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in them to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13). As a result, it seems that Paul is telling the Philippians that sharing in the mindset of Christ means embracing the way of the Cross in order to attain the life of the world to come.

However, this is no small task, which can be seen when Paul tells the Philippians to therefore work out their salvation with fear and trembling, an admonition that makes sense if he has just called them to share in the cross of Christ.

Yet in Phil 2:13 we have an important clue as to how all of this hangs together, for Paul continues and states that it is God who is at work within them to will and work according to his purposes. In other words, God will empower the Philippians to have the same cruciform mindset as Christ. How does this work?

As the great Protestant Pauline scholar John Barclay has repeatedly highlighted, Paul’s account of grace entails the empowerment of the believer for obedience, and this dynamic can be seen in texts such as Rom 6: 12-23, 15:15-19, I Cor 15:10, 2 Cor 9:8-10, and Gal 2:19-21.[1]

This account of Pauline grace is captured well by Augustine in The Spirit and the Letter, no. 34, when he suggests that the law was given so that grace might be sought and grace was given so the law might be kept. Yet as Barclay also makes clear, divine grace is also profoundly counter-cultural, for the divine gift is not given according to the inherent worthiness of the recipient but due to the fantastic generosity of God to those in need.

This leads us to the Gospel passage where Jesus’ parable strikes right to the core of God’s “unconditioned but not unconditional” grace. [2]

Gospel: Matthew 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."

In this rather short parable, Jesus serves to explain the preceding question he asked regarding the nature of John the Baptist’s authority, for in Matt 21:25 Jesus asks whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men. Here in Matt 21:28-32, Jesus expands on the rationale behind this question by differentiating two kinds of people and their relationship to the dawning kingdom of God.

The first group of people are the tax collectors and harlots represented by the first son, for at first they refuse to obey the will of God, yet at the preaching of John they turned and repented. As a result, Jesus is clear that this group will enter the Kingdom of God before the second group. 

So who are the members of the second group?

They appear to be the leaders of Israel who at first stated that they will obey the will of God, but have not been obedient to God in embracing the message of the Kingdom of God as announced by John.

With this being said, we might ask: is there more to note about the inner logic of this passage that might serve to connect it to the previous passages examined above?

In direct continuity with the message of Ezek 18:25-28, Jesus is making clear that those who turn from their sins will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, yet those who begin on the path of obedience but turn away will be held accountable for their sins.

In light of Israel’s heart problem that led to the exile, their need for the salvation of Yahweh is particularly acute, and Psalm 25 testifies to the prayer of Israel for God to be faithful to his promises to bring his salvation. In Phil 2:1-11 (plus 12-13) we find the answer to Israel’s prayer, for in the cross of Christ God demonstrates his covenant faithfulness through the sacrifice of the suffering servant by providing the salvation that all humanity needs (Rom 3:21-26, 4:25).

This salvation comes to those who believe through the empowerment of divine grace, a gift which actually brings about the obedience that God requires, in particular, full conformity to the cross of Christ.

However, this gift is profoundly counter-cultural, for it is not granted  on the basis of worth but on the basis of need. In this gift, sinners are transformed and empowered to walk in the way of the Lord and are able to do the “graced works” requisite to enter into the life of the world to come.


In the end, we return to the question: is God just?

In these four passages put forward by the Church for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the answer is yes, but in a way that is inseparable from his mercy.

In being faithful to his promises, God offers humanity the ability to be just through his mercy, for through his empowering grace, both Jews and Gentiles are offered both the forgiveness and transformation they need to enter the Kingdom of God.

However, while it is true that grace is unconditioned, it is not thereby unconditional, nor is it for those fail to receive the gift by denying their need for salvation. Instead, grace is for all those who stand in need of the salvation-creating power of God, and in accepting this grace are transformed to be made like Jesus.

In coming to offer God our worship this Sunday, we might ask ourselves: do we come as those who stand in need of his transforming power available through sharing in the body and blood of Christ (I Cor 10:16-17), or do we simply assume that we are righteous on our own?

The Church calls us this Sunday to be truthful about ourselves, knowing that God is faithful to his promises to demonstrate his merciful justice in our lives and by means of his empowering grace, conform us to Christ crucified and lead us to a full participation in the Kingdom of God.


[1] See John M.G. Barclay, “‘By the Grace of God I am what I am’: Grace and Agency in Philo and Paul,” in John M.G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole, eds., Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 140-157; idem, “Grace and the Transformation of Agency in Christ,” in Fabian E. Udoh, eds. Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities: Essays in Honor of Ed Parish Sanders (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 372-389; idem, “Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus,” in Beverly Roberts Gaventa, ed., Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013), 59-76.[2] Barclay, “Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus,” 64. 


Anonymous said...

Welcome John Kincaid! Wonderful explanation of the Word of God for this Sunday!

Susan Moore said...

Thanks for all the Bible references, it makes reading it even more satisfying.