29 September 2008

Empty to be Filled

26th Sunday OT: Ezk 18.25-28; Phil 2.1-5; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Think about standing in line before the Pearly Gates and seeing in front of you the IRS agent who audited your taxes and ruined you financially; the infamous Hollywood Madame who kept a client list and caused the downfall of several prominent politicians and televangelist; the German serial killer who butchered his victims, stored their bodies in his deep-freezer, and on occasion thawed out a piece or two for dinner. Imagine these folks ahead of you in line and think about how they might have gotten where they are. Tax collector, a prostitute, a serial killer. We could add several others: the HIV-AIDS infected man who intentionally sleeps with other men to spread the disease; the bankers and portfolio managers whose greed helped cause the current economic disaster; political leaders in countries all over the world who starve, torture, murder their citizens for power; the list could go on, and so the line into heaven could get longer and longer. But the question here is: seeing these people ahead of you in line, you have to wonder, how did they get here? Such profoundly evil people in line to heaven. How?

The quick and easy answer, of course, is God’s grace. But that’s not much of an answer because no one is in that line without God’s grace. What does it mean for a serial killer or a avaricious banker to experience God’s grace, repent of his sin, and find himself in a line to heaven? Remember our question from last week: are you envious of God’s generosity? Man’s capacity to receive God’s grace is not limitless. However, there is no limit to God’s generosity. Limitless grace poured into a limited vessel means one thing: overflow; assuming, of course, that the vessel is indeed filled. But for a sinner to be filled requires a certain awareness that he/she is empty in the first place.

Is this the point that Jesus is making about the son who refuses to work but then repents and does as he is asked to do. Having refused to work, the son is ripe with disobedience, rigid with refusal and dissent. Being so far from his father’s will, he is keenly aware of being lost. That despair drives him back to his father’s will and saves him. The other son, accepting his father’s will, eagerly agrees to work but fails to follow through. His disobedience is compounded by deceit. Believing himself to be filled with his father’s will, he is not “empty enough” to repent. He coasts, if you will, on his initial good will, believing that this is sufficient to save him from his father’s wrath.

How do serial killers, corrupt politicians, prostitutes end up in heaven with you, the righteous son or daughter? If they end up there, they do so first because the absence of the Father’s will hurts too much to ignore. How long can a creature turn from its Creator and not feel the yawning emptiness of desire denied? To be created is to have purpose. We are purpose given flesh and spirit. You cannot NOT be what you were made to be for very long and fail to feel the corruption of your refusal. To repent of your refusal is like a tremendous rebound, the further you stretch away from God’s will, the harder, the faster, the tighter the comeback! A glorious SNAP! right back into the will of the Father.

Standing there in line with the other sinners, all of those who recognized the emptiness of their disobedience and repented, you can look around you and see some of the infamous wretches of history. If they are there, they are there because they figured out that they are limited vessels, overflowing with the limitless graces of a loving God. The ones you are not likely to see standing in line are those who believed to the end that they were vessels once filled, always filled, and needing nothing more from God than His push for their own initial yes, they pursue other, smaller desires. Having taken a sip of His grace, they believe their thirst is quenched and drink no more.

Is there a better definition of hell?


  1. Anonymous3:35 PM

    O, I have such emptiness.
    But, a question from a simple mind:
    The reading doesn't say the son who refused actually repented, just that he changed his mind...

  2. Anon,

    OK. And the difference btw "repenting" and "changing one's mind" is...???

    Fr. Philip, OP

  3. Anonymous3:17 PM

    Just nuance, I guess - one of the definitons of 'repent' is 'change one's mind' but what I'm missing is where he actually told the Father he changed his mind and that he was sorry.

  4. Anon.,

    I think the sorry part is implied in the change of heart and his subsequent obedience. Think about the story in the OT where God "repented" of His angry at His people...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  5. Anonymous11:24 PM

    THANK YOU FOR THIS HOMILY, FATHER. I appreciate your thoughts and your words and effort, all of which engaged me, and made me think and assimilate more of our life of faith and the wonderful rationale of it.

    As a sidenote, I'm slowly discerning a mystery about words and use of them that, once I've converted into words, I'd like to share some day.

    The son changed his mind, and actively obeyed and went. Did he repent? Truth be told, I was challenged by your first note and by Father's response. But, yes, the son did repent. He conformed to the will of his father. He obeyed and went [to the vineyard]. Jesus, Himself, confirmed this active obedience as the key issue.

    A problem is that the term 'repent' is often regarded in error as an emotional phenomena, rather than a mental, or decisive, and active one, that may or may not involve emotion.

    The phenomena, repenting, is an internal and external congruity, manifesting itself in mind and in heart and in body (or conduct); else it's not 'repent'. A lot of this success, as it progresses, becomes His work in us vs. our own work IF we trust Him and cooperate, etc.

    Out of curiosity and for my own benefit, and for you, if you're interested, I checked the definition on the web, and copied four entries below. Stress, in the form of capital letters, is mine.
    1--- TURN AWAY from sin or DO penitence
    FEEL remorse for; FEEL sorry for; BE contrite about
    2--- a change of THOUGHT and ACTION, TO CORRECT a wrong and GAIN forgiveness from the one wronged. In religious contexts it usually refers to CONFESSION to God, CEASING sin against Him, and RESOLVING to live according to His law.
    3--- TO FEEL pain, sorrow, or regret for what one has done or omitted to do; TO CHANGE one's MIND, or the course of CONDUCT, on account of regret or dissatisfaction; TO FEEL pain on account of; TO REMEMBER with sorrow; To cause to have sorrow or regret
    4--- ACKNOWLEDGE one's wrong and TURN AWAY from it.

    Father, if you don't necessarily welcome SO MUCH comment, please say so, so I know.

    In Jesus, Cathy

  6. Cathy,

    Please, comment away! No worries.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  7. Anonymous4:20 PM

    Thank you, Cathy. Very inciteful. Perhaps I was working toward definition #2 in my mind...
    Father, I guess I don't do very well with 'implied' and there in the OT, God wouldn't have needed to confess.