The familiar words we just heard from Saint Paul [Philippians 2:1-11] were written from prison to the Christian community Paul had founded at Philippi, to thank them for their generosity in the past and to encourage them in facing the future, a future that probably seemed even bit as worrisome for them as ours does for us.
Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, he advised them. Paul’s idea of encouragement was to identify with the fundamental truth about Jesus, which he proceeded to express – not in his own words but with what most likely was already an existing Christian hymn, an early profession of faith in 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 …
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 …
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior, Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. On this day of almost government shutdown, we are again invited to contrast the self-centered pursuit of power, domination, and control, which directs so much of human behavior and history, with Jesus, whose obedience has made it possible for us to undo that destructive pattern and alter the course of human history, by creating new kinds of relationships for us, both with God and with one another.
Jesus’ obedience to his Father was not some isolated act. It was a total attitude that characterized his whole self. In the biblical account, that was how God originally intended all of us to live. We can no longer return to that original state – or, indeed, to any past state – but, with God’s help, we have been enabled to change course – like the first son in the parable in today’s Gospel [Matthew 21:28-32], who first answered, “I will not,” but who then afterwards changed his mind.
It is certainly true that we cannot undo the past. How well we all know that! But that obvious fact can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and a particularly poisonous excuse, to do nothing, becoming silent spectators in the story of life. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way it is,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!”
It’s true, of course, that we cannot undo the past, and that we are all in some sense always products of our past, both good and bad – both the things that have happened to us that we couldn’t control and all the good and bad decisions and choices we have made and the long-term consequences they have caused. But the good news of the Gospel is that, while we cannot undo that past, we can change course in the present, by remodeling ourselves in the image of God’s Son and so share in his new life – already here and now in the community of his Church on earth and then forever when our risen selves are joined with Christ completely in the kingdom of the Father.
America used to be known as the land of second chances. That may or may not be true anymore. But, in telling us this parable about the two sons, Jesus makes clear that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failures; but rather to do like the first son and change. Let’s get going, Jesus is telling us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading us!
Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, October 1, 2023.