26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
God's people complain to the prophet Ezekiel, “The Lord is unfair! His rules are too rigid. His demands on us are burdensome. His ways are so unfair!” Through Ezekiel, the Lord turns the complaints around and asks, “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” The Lord's obvious point is that when we complain about His “rules,” what we are really complaining about is our own refusal to see and hear the inevitable consequences of our own bad choices. It's not gravity's fault that we fall to the ground when we choose to jump out of a perfectly good tree. Nor is it God's fault when we persist in our sins, sowing disobedience and discord, and are then left to deal with the messy results. All of our favorite tricks for dodging responsibility are just that – tricks. Re-defining a sin so that it doesn't seem like a sin. Appealing to polls or science or other religions to wave away unpleasant “rules.” Putting God's will “into the proper context” in order to lighten any perceived burden. None of these work. Not ultimately. What works? What works every single time? Repentance and God's mercy. In that order: we repent – turn toward God – and His mercy freely flows.
Here's one way to think about this: the Church – that's us – has a heart problem. Not just a troubled heart or a heavy heart, but a problem with how our hearts in Christ circulate the life-blood of the Church, the two key ingredients of our salvation: our repentance and God's mercy. This diagnosis of a heart problem arises for us at a time in the life of the Church when we are being challenged more than ever to examine and defend the basic truths of the faith, forced to consider and reconsider how we as followers of Christ understand ourselves as heirs to the Kingdom. What does it mean to be an heir to the Kingdom? Take Jesus' parable of the two sons. This is a parable about the Old and New Covenants, about unrepentant Israel under the Law of Moses and the obedient Church under the grace of Christ. The first son, at first disobedient, eventually repents and obeys his father's command to work the vineyards. The second son, pretending to be obedient, immediately agrees to work the vineyards but never gets around to it. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “Which son does the father's will?” They reply correctly, “The first.” Jesus then admonishes them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” Notorious public sinners are becoming heirs to the Kingdom!
How? How do these notorious public sinners enter the kingdom before God's chosen religious leaders? B/c the notorious public sinners heard John the Baptist preach repentance, and they repented of their sins. Like the first son, they turned themselves around and obeyed. The priests and elders heard John, but they never turned, relying instead on the illusion of obedience to save them. Like the second son, they believe that obedience is just words. God's mercy flows freely and abundantly to those who repent, those who truly turn themselves around and do the will of the Father. Notice: it's not the ones who complain and whine about the “rules” that end up repenting and inheriting the Kingdom. It's not the really super-religious people who follow all the rules who end up inheriting the Kingdom. Who inherits? Traitors, hookers, serial killers, child molesters, and thieves. They inherit. . .IF they repent, turn around toward God, and obey His will. If we will inherit the Kingdom, we will spend much less time complaining about the unfairness of God's ways and much, much more time and energy turning ourselves around to face the Him, the only One who can and will save us.
All of this is Christianity 101. So, where's the heart problem? Here's the problem: having received God's mercy by repenting of our own sins, do we allow our fellow sinners the chance to live out the mercy they themselves have received through repentance? Or, do we refuse to recognize them as brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we tempted to assume the worse about notorious sinners and leave them out of the Kingdom? Look to your own experience with God's mercy. Instead of complaining about His “unfair ways,” you searched your conscience, found your sins, confessed and repented of them, then went on with your growth in holiness fed by His mercy. If you can do it, then why can't another? Maybe you suffer from a heart problem. Does repentance and mercy freely circulate in your body? If not, then they cannot freely circulate in the Body of Christ, the Church. And if these two key ingredients of our salvation cannot freely circulate, then the Church will grow weaker and weaker at a time when we need one another's strength and courage more and more. It is the Lord's Way that we must repent to receive mercy. It is also His Way that we must recognize repentance and allow His mercy to feed others.
How do we do this? How do we recognize repentance and allow God's mercy to feed others? As always, Paul comes to our aid. He pleads with us: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy. . .Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” In other words, if Christ strengthens your heart or comforts you in love; if you in any way take part in the life and work of the Holy Spirit, or receive from the Spirit any amount of compassion or mercy, then take on the mind of Christ – think with his sacrificial love, work with his dedication for the salvation of souls, and speak in the language of obedience and service. Paul challenges us to be “of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of [vanity].” When we repent and lay claim to God's mercy for ourselves, yet refuse to recognize the repentance of another, thus refusing to see God's mercy at work in them, we put ourselves in the Judgment Seat, displacing Christ as the only true Judge. Then our heart problem becomes critical and the Church grows weaker. It is unfair that God forgives those we believe to be unrepentant sinners? Let Him answer: “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?”
Our Lord admonishes the priests and elders b/c they did not believe John the Baptist when he preached the baptist of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They were appalled when tax collectors and prostitutes lined the River Jordan for baptism, and they accused John of defiling God's ways. But they were really accusing God Himself. Jesus turns the accusing finger back on them, telling them that the worst of the worst among them were entering the Kingdom before they could. The difference btw the priests/elders and the notorious sinners is not their sin or their desire for mercy. Both groups are sinners; both want mercy. The difference is that the sinners turned toward God, repenting of their sins in all humility, asking for and receiving the forgiveness they need to become heirs to the Kingdom. The priests and elders complain to Jesus that God is being too lax, too easy on the sinners; He's encouraging more sin by letting them off w/o sufficient punishments. God says, “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” If you have a heart problem, repent and let the Father's mercy heal you.
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