Fr. Roger J. Landry
Saint Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 28, 2014
Ezek 18:25-28, Ps 25, Phil 2:1-11, Mt 21:28-32
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
God’s Merciful Call to Conversion
In last Sunday’s first reading, God said to us through the prophet Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways.” In today’s first reading, God tells us what his ways are relative to how we use our freedom. “When the just man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for … the iniquity that he has committed. [But] when the wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life.” To man’s complaint that “the way of the Lord is unfair,” God responds by saying, “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” God, who is merciful and just, is merciful to those who convert, and just to those voluntarily who turn away from his mercy and love. God tells us that anything less than that would be unjust, rewarding people for doing evil or failing to be loving to those who change their ways for the better. But his will is obviously for us to turn to him always, receive his merciful love, and live.
This is the context for us to understand the parable Jesus gives us in the Gospel about the two sons, which could just as easily be called the parable of the of two parishioners, two sons or daughters of this family of faith. The same lessons Jesus out of love was trying to communicate in the temple of Jerusalem to the chief priests and elders of the people he is here in this temple of God trying to communicate to us.
In the parable Jesus employs the image of working in his Father’s vineyard to encapsulate human life. There are two essential aspects of our life. The first is to be attached to Jesus Christ, the Vine, and to his Father, the vine grower. The second is to be a worker in his vineyard, to bear fruit. Jesus tells us during the Last Supper that if we remain in him and he in us like branches on the vine, then we will bear fruit and that our fruit will last. He also tells us that he never ceases to call us to this relationship with him and this work with him in the Father’s vineyard. Last Sunday, he gave us the beautiful image of going out to hire laborers for the vineyard at dawn, nine, noon, three and five, saying that if we responded to his invitation, went into the vineyard and worked hard, he generously would give us all the same lifetime wage.
We see God’s generous mercy on display in the image of the first of his the Sons, who reminds us, in a way, of the first of two Sons in the parable of the prodigal Son, the one who initially treats his Father as dead and refuses to live in his house, but who eventually comes back repentant and receives the Father’s love. Today, Jesus describes that the first son initially refused when his father said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today,” but afterward changed his mind and went to work. After the parable, Jesus implies that this is the proper way to understand those prostitutes and tax collectors and other types of sinners, who even though for lengthy periods of time they said “no!” to the sixth, seventh and other commandments, eventually converted and were now living and working in the Lord’s vineyard, building up and entering into his kingdom.
The second son responds to his father’s command saying respectfully, “I will go sir,” but never acts on that promise. Jesus says that this applies to precisely those he was addressing, the scribes and the Pharisees, who so many times very publicly prayed in the temple chanting their loud “amens!” to God, but who were not following through on their covenantal commitments. The Pharisees, scribes and elders, who with their lips were saying yes to the Father’s will but with their actions were not, ended up showing where this hypocrisy can lead: they ended up framing Jesus and having him tortured, crucified and killed.
Following through on our end of the Covenant
It’s obvious that the Lord wants all of us today to reflect not only on what we say to God, but especially on how we follow through on our commitments. We’re here this morning because we are people who have said “yes” to God many times over the course of our lives. On the day of our baptism, our parents and godparents spoke up for us and made our baptismal promises, in which we committed ourselves to burn with and walk in Christ’s light, to keep our baptismal garments cleaned, and to live up to our dignity as God’s adopted children. At our Confirmation, we stood up and renewed those baptismal promises to reject Satan, his evil works and empty promises, and to believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body and life everlasting; we also made the commitment at our Confirmation to go to work in the Lord’s vineyard, with tongues of fire, to proclaim the Lord’s Gospel with ardent passion. The Lord wants us to ask ourselves today whether we’ve been following through on those commitments and been getting down to work in his vineyard. If we have not been following through, if we’ve been saying “no” to the Lord with our bodies despite the “yes-es” of our lips, then the Lord wants to help us to learn from the example of the first Son, to give us the grace of conversion, to grant us the help he knows we need to remain faithful and courageous, and then to have us head out to do the Father’s will. Jesus was clear with us about the importance of deeds over words when he said during the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
A few years ago, Pope Benedict went to Germany and said that what Jesus was saying in today’s Gospel points to one of the “fundamental themes of [his] prophetic preaching.” “The message of the parable is clear: it is not words that matter, but deeds, deeds of conversion and faith. Jesus directs this message to the chief priests and elders of the people, that is, to the experts of religion for the people of Israel. At first they say ‘yes’ to God’s will, but their piety becomes routine and God no longer matters to them. For this reason they find the message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus disturbing. The Lord concludes his parable with harsh words: ‘Truly, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him, and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him’” (Mt 21:32).
The Pope then went on to “update” this image into more modern terms: “Translated into the language of our time, this statement might sound something like this: agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith. The words of Jesus should make us all pause, in fact they should disturb us.” He was saying that for many sons and daughters of God, our “yes” in faith has become routine. We say it so naturally and readily that we have ceased to understand the meaning of what we’re saying and to act on that commitment. Every week we say “Amen!” when the priest or an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion says, “The Body of Christ,” but do we really structure our lives in a way consistent with this affirmation? If we did, I can’t imagine that we would ever voluntarily miss the opportunity on Sunday to come to receive God. We say, “Thanks be to God!” when the Word of God is proclaimed at Mass, but do we show that gratitude for this incredible gift by making time each day meditate on what God is saying to us and apply it to our lives? Many of us spend more time watching “Law and Order” reruns than we do reading Sacred Scripture to learn God’s law and follow his loving orders. We affirm, “I believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” but do we still believe when God asks us to do something challenging, like hard work in his vineyard, or does our faith weaken when God asks of us something we don’t want to do? We confess our faith in the “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church,” but do we look at the Church as just one other organization to which we belong or rather as the Bride and Body of Christ that he set up for our salvation and for the salvation of our family members, friends, enemies and the whole world?
The Third Son
It’s clear that God is seeking to move us today to let our hearts be touched by faith, to get beyond words, and make our life an “Amen!,” a “let it be done to me according to your word!,” a “thy will be done!” To learn how to do this we need to grasp that there’s a third son whose example is set before us today in this Gospel scene, someone who both says “yes” and then does what he is asked. It’s the Son who told us the parable: Jesus himself, who is here among us today. As we read in the letter to the Hebrews, upon entering into the world, Jesus said to his Father, “Here I am, Lord, I have come to do your will” (Heb 10:7-9). Jesus never had to change his mind, as the first son did in the parable, because in his mind he was always seeking what the Father wanted. The more we think with the mind of Christ, and live according to that mentality with the help of God’s grace, the more we will please the Father. This is what St. Paul calls us to do in today’s second reading, when he exhorts us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Christ sought to do the Father’s will so much that he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” In response to Jesus’ question in the Gospel, “Which … did the will of his father?,” we’re called to respond that Jesus did the will of the Father! And today Jesus calls us to follow him in doing the Father’s will with him. He calls us to say “yes” to the Father and to act on that “yes.”
The Living Commentary on today’s Gospel
We learn how to do this in the lives of the saints. In the bulletin this week, I have written profiles of two of those who not only show us but teach us how to do the will of God as God is asking us today. The first profile is of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, who was beatified yesterday in Madrid, and whose writings and life have had an enormous impact on me, especially in helping me try to sanctify my work and to unite the many things I need to do to God as, hopefully, a pleasing sacrifice of Abel. He was a young engineering student who in 1935 met the future St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. He attended a day of prayer that St. Josemaria was preaching and during that day he grasped that God was calling him to assist St. Josemaria in making practical the mission God had given to St. Josemaria to help all people — especially lay people — become holy in the midst of their ordinary duties. And so said “yes” immediately to what he knew God was asking of him and persevered in that commitment for the last 59 years of his life. He once wrote about how we’re all called to persevere in following through on our yeses to God by referencing what he St. Josemaria had once written in some personal notes. St. Josemaria used to refer to himself as the Lord’s burrito, his little donkey, who humbly served as Jesus’ thrown on his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. St. Josemaria had written, ‘Lord, your little donkey wants to deserve being called ‘the one who loves God’s Will.” Blessed Alvaro commented that St. Josemaria “loved and sought God’s Will so as to fulfill it faithfully at every moment. … The same thing ought to happen in our lives, because God works similarly with each of us. He gives us his grace so we can rely on him totally and be ready to fulfill his Will whatever it may be, and he shows us clearly what he is asking of us. … All of us should always have our ear attentive, our will alert and ready to follow his divine inspirations. Then we will discover God’s will for us at each moment. And what is [his will for us]? For anyone who makes the effort to open his eyes, the words of Scripture are as clear as daylight: ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thess 4:3). God asks us to become saints, which is why he demands faithfulness from us… God wants you to fulfill [your commitment to prayer] well and lovingly. He wants your work to be done perfectly and out of love. He wants you to love him. He wants … well, ask him yourself” in prayer. This is what Blessed Alvaro always did and sought and he fulfilled the Lord’s call for his sanctification all the way until the end of his life into eternity. And we rejoice that he did God’s will to the end.
The second example I’ve given in the bulletin is Sr. Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, a New Jersey native who on Saturday in Newark will become the first person ever to be beatified in the United States. There are 18 with American ties who have become blesseds and saints, but hers will be the first beatification Mass in the history of our country, and so it will be a great cause for joyful celebration for all American Catholics. She died as a Sister of Charity at the young age of 26, but the priest who was her spiritual director grasped that she had received great graces from God and so, in order to give testimony to those graces, had had her anonymous write various of the spiritual conferences he was preaching to the sisters in her convent. Those conferences were published after her death in 1927. I’ve been reading them in anticipation of her beatification. In them she talks about the path to sanctity in simple and straightforward terms. And like Blessed Alvaro, she reminds everyone of us that God’s will for us is not to be a bad Christian, or a mediocre Catholic, but a saint.
“The imitation of Christ in the lives of the saints,” she wrote, “is always possible and compatible with every state of life. The saints did but one thing — the will of God. But they did it with all their might. We have only to do the same thing — and according to the degree of intensity with which we labor shall our sanctification progress.” The saints said yes to God and with all their heart and strength sought to respond to God’s help to follow through. In order to do God’s will, however, we need to let go of our will, of our desire to be in charge and control. In other words, we need humility. “We shall attain that height of glory in heaven that corresponds to the depths of the humility we have sounded on earth,” Sr. Miriam Teresa wrote “The perfection of humility is the annihilation of our will, its absolute submission to the divine in every least detail.” And that annihilation, she said, is a thing not of abnegation but of love. “The reason we have not yet become saints is because we have not understood what it means to love. We think we do, but we do not. To love means to annihilate oneself for the beloved. The self-sacrifice of a mother for her child is only a shadow of the love wherewith we should love the Beloved of our soul. To love is to conform oneself to the Beloved in the most intimate manner of which we are capable.” The path to sanctity is to learn how to follow through on Jesus’ command to love others as he has loved us first. This is something that she is interceding for us not only to learn but to do. This is something Blessed Alvaro is likewise praying for us to accomplish. This is something that St. Bernadette never ceases to ask of God for us.
Learning to do the Father’s Will in the School of the Eucharist
The greatest way the saints teach us about how to learn to do the will of the Father, to put God’s words into action until the end, to put on the mind of Christ is in the Holy Eucharist. Sr. Miriam Teresa wrote of the help we receive from Jesus in the Eucharist to conform our entire life to his in doing the Father’s will. “In partaking of the Blessed Sacrament,” she said, “we have a most powerful aid to sanctification. God Himself comes to perfect us, if we but so will.” Blessed Alvaro found this to be true. He was the one who had written into the Second Vatican Council’s document for priests that Jesus in the Eucharist is meant to be the “root and center” of our life, and Jesus in the Eucharist was certainly the root and center, the source and summit, of his. His Last Mass was in the Cenacle in Jerusalem, 17 hours before the Lord called him to himself upon his return to Rome, just about the same length of time — as St. John Paul II noted when he came to pray at Blessed Alvaro’s remains hours after his death — between Jesus’ celebration of the Last Supper and his death on Calvary the following day. Don Alvaro entered into death precisely through entering into Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Holy Eucharist. He received the ability to say yes to God precisely by saying Amen to him every day at the altar. The Eucharist helps us to conform our whole life to God’s will. Jesus had prayed in Gethsemane that the Father would take the chalice from him, but then added three times, “But not my will, but thine be done!” (Lk 22:42). That chalice was the cup of his suffering, filled with his own blood. When Jesus told us during the Last Supper to “do this in memory of me,” he was not merely telling us to convene as we do today to celebrate this greatest event of all. Jesus was telling us to make our lives truly Eucharistic and, following Jesus’ example, become obedient even to our own death, saying to God and to others, “This is my body, this is my blood, this is everything I am and have, this is my will, given for you.” It is here that we attach ourselves to Christ Jesus the Vine and insert ourselves into his work to in the vineyard of the world, his great mission of salvation. Through the intercession of Blessed Alvaro and soon to be Blessed Miriam Teresa, may this third Son, this faithful Son whom we’re about to receive, help us not merely to say, “Amen!,” but to follow through on the mission he out of love has entrusted to each of us and all of us, so that, not merely by our lips but by our lives, we might help each other to become living commentaries of the words “Thy will be done!” and show the world, as we prayed in the second reading, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father! Amen!.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
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.
ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
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.
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.
“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.”