|The Sánchez Archives
TWENTY SIXTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
A Believers Prerogative
Although there is little agreement as to its origin, most people are familiar with the saying, Its a womans prerogative to change her mind. Unfortunately, this saying is usually offered by way of an excuse for a certain fickleness or to explain a tendency toward inconsistency in decision making. But, as is reflected in the readings for todays liturgy, the ability to change ones mind, whether man or woman is a necessary aspect of Christian living. Indeed, it is the believers responsibility and prerogative to alter his/her thinking in order to bring it into alignment with the very mind of God, as this mind is revealed through the prophets (Ezekiel), the gospels (Matthew), and in the person and mission of Jesus Christ (Philippians).
Ideally, the process of altering or changing ones mind results in a life-changing experience called conversion or metanoia (change of mind) in Greek or shubh (an about face, a change of direction) in Hebrew.
In one of his novels, author Walter Percy (The Second Coming, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1980),described a character named Will Barrett who was in the throes of a mind-changing and life-altering experience. A very accomplished and wealthy person, Barrett had been widowed for about six months and, in his grief, was contemplating suicide. As he sat in his Mercedes Benz with Lugar in hand, prepared to put an end to his sorrow, the sound of a nearby rifle shot brought him to his senses.
At that point in his life, Barrett realized that three things had to being to take place in his life. In his remarks about Percys work, Michael Whelan (Living Strings, E.J. Dwyer, Newtown, Australia: 1994) explained, Barrett had to: (1) undergo a change in his perception of himself and his world; (2) shift the center of gravity in his life; (3) make a decision about the future direction of his life. In a word, Barrett had to make use of his prerogative as a human being to change his mind.
Believers are assured by the prophet Ezekiel (first reading) that if they do change their mind and shift their center of gravity, from evil and self, to God and the ways of goodness, then they shall live. However, Ezekiel also issued a warning that recalcitrance in refusing to turn toward God will result in death.
The parable of the two sons (gospel) also offers both warning and encouragement to those whose initial course in life may be summed up as a No! to Gods overtures of love or a detour from Gods grace. The example of the second son invites sinners to strike out in a new direction. Despite his refusal to do his fathers bidding, the second son regretted his decision and exercised his prerogative to change his mind; as a result, he found himself in blessed accord with his fathers will. However, the elders son did not match his decision (I am on my way, sir) with his deeds (but he never went). His center of gravity had not shifted; he refused to change his mind, he failed his father.
The early Christological hymn which Paul quoted in his letter to the Philippians (second reading) provides insight into the very mind of Jesus. His knowledge and acceptance of Gods will and his willingness of conform his mind to that will despite the cost, remain an example for every Christian.
Todays liturgical readings issue an admonition along with a challenge. Besides calling believers to exercise their prerogative of changing their minds so as to put on the mind of Christ, the scriptures extend a subtle warning; the believers opportunity for exercising his/her prerogative is afforded at this moment, now! Therefore, the opportunity cannot be put off. Exercise your prerogative today!
Baseball great, Ty Cobb, played 3,033 games and for twelve years led the American League in batting averages. For four years he averaged over 400. However, his spiritual life had not kept pace with his sporting career. Converted to Christ while near death on 17 July 1961, he said, You tell the boys Im sorry it was the last part of the ninth (inning) that I came to know Christ. I wish it had taken place in the first half of the first (inning). If there is a lesson to be learned from Cobbs experience, perhaps it could be expressed as follows: As long as a person draws breath, its never too late to change course; its never too late to shift ones center of gravity; its never too late to exercise the prerogative of changing ones mind. In todays first reading, the prophet Ezekiel was attempting to impart a similar lesson to his contemporaries.
Part of a longer pericope (18:1-32) in which the prophet considered the issue of communal solidarity versus individual responsibility, todays excerpted text is better understood in its theological and scriptural context. Ingrained in the psyche of the Hebrew believer was a sense of belonging to a community; organically every community member was affected by the deeds and misdeeds of other members. So pervasive was this notion of corporate personality that it was believed that generations yet to come would suffer the consequences of past and present individual and corporate guilt. For example, the Deuteronomic historians insisted that all of Jerusalem fell as punishment for the sins of Manasseh (2 Kings 24:3-4). A popular proverb quoted by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel gave poetic expression to this belief, Fathers have eaten green grapes, thus the childrens teeth are on edge (Jeremiah 31:29, Ezekiel 18:2).
However, with the exile and the resulting destruction of Israels religious and political institutions, there emerged a new emphasis on the individual. Ezekiel, as prophet and sharer in their exile experience, helped his people to understand that while the value of the community was not to be denied, innocence, guilt, and retribution were to be assessed individually. Therefore, when his contemporaries complained that they were suffering for sins they had not committed and cried out, The Lords way is not fair! (v. 25), Ezekiel helped them to realize and acknowledge that their own sins had perpetrated their present suffering. Ezekiel also made it clear that their situation was not hopeless. The prophet assured his people that they were not burdened by the baggage of their ancestors sins; nor were they burdened by the baggage of their own evil past deeds.
Rather than cry out against God, Ezekiel continues to urge his readers to seize the opportunity being afforded them by Gods mercy. If only they would turn from evil and do what is right and good, God would surely preserve them. Just as each sinner is culpable only for her own wrong doing, so also is each sinner responsible for exercising his prerogative as a believer, to change his mind, to shift her center of gravity and to make a decision about the future direction of his life.
Scholars, with expertise in the history of the early church, agree that the Philippian Christians probably met in the home of Lydia, a traveling merchant from Thyatira. Lydia sold luxurious purple- dyed cloth and, evidently, was successful enough to own a home in Philippi, large enough to accommodate the first Christian converts in that city (Acts 16:12-15, 40). Scholars also believe that the household structure provided a rich and fertile setting for the holy and wholesome development of the early Christian community. In his book on this subject, Del Birkey (The House Church, Herald Press, Kitchener, Ontario: 1988), has suggested that the church in the home: (1) provided the most dynamic setting for Christian community and worship; (2) contributed to the experiential understanding of the churchs essence as the family of God; (3) was culturally relevant in that it provided a decentralized freedom for creative expression within variations cultural settings; (4) nurtured healthy social integration; (5) positively influenced the development of church leaders; (6) offered the strength of the community to each individuals effort at conversion; (7) kept believers attuned to their responsibilities for mutual service and hospitality; (8) provided a network for receiving and sending early missionaries of the gospel.
Paul, was, of course, sensitive to the importance of the individual house churches; to that end, he advised the Christians of Philippi and all readers of his correspondence that the attitude which inspired and informed every communal interaction must be the attitude of the one in whom they believed (v. 5). Only by making their own the attitude or mind (as in NRSV, NJB) of Christ could they hope to love and support one another in a manner worthy of their calling as Christians.
In order to illustrate the manner in which believers should share one love and be united in the same spirit and ideals, without rivalry or conceit (vv. 2-3), the apostle to the gentiles quoted a pre-Pauline christological hymn (vv. 6-11). On Palm-Passion Sunday, in each year of the three-year liturgical cycle, this hymn celebrates both the suffering and glory of Jesus saving work. Jesus did not demand that his rightful status as Gods equal be recognized. Rather, he divested himself of every right, honor and privilege, even the elemental human right to life. In loving obedience to a plan which, at times, he found difficult to accept (Luke 22:42), Jesus emptied himself. The Greek verb, kenoun, or to empty, means that Jesus, by his own volition, was rendered powerless and ineffective, just as slaves in the ancient world were regarded as having no power or influence (v. 7).
In its present context, on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, this hymn reminds believers that putting on the mind of Christ in order to live lovingly with one another in community requires a self-emptying and divestiture of rights, honors and privileges. To assume Christs attitude is to look to the interest of others rather than to ones own (v.4). Although this selflessness may entail suffering, it is also the path to glory.
When his opponents attempted to muddy the message of the good news with their objections and rejections, Jesus parables restored a clarity that could not be denied. Like a two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart (Hebrews 4:12), the parables laid bare the truth for all who heard them, bringing nurture and hope to those in need and an unmistakable nudge of warning to the self-righteous. As the parable of the two sons unfolds anew today, each listener is challenged to accept either the nurture or the nudge it offers.
Unique to the Matthean gospel, this short parable was, at its basic level of development, addressed to the chief priests and elders in defense of Jesus penchant for associating with sinners. No doubt, Jesus listeners recognized themselves in his parable. Because the Jewish leaders persisted in their rejection of the good news as it was proclaimed in the words and works of Jesus, this parable proffered them a nudge. Self-righteous yes-men and women must translate that yes into their every day lives. This aspect of the parable reprised a theme popular in the Matthean gospel, viz., that faith which is spoken, but not lived, is empty. Calling out, Lord, Lord (I am on my way, sir), is not sufficient; the will of the Father must also be accomplished (see Matthew 7:21-23; 12:50;23:3-4). Promises and profession must be matched by performance.
The figure of the son who first refused to do as his father requested, but then later regretted his decision and obeyed, must have extended nurture and hope to tax collectors and prostitutes. Even though their lives had initially been lived in opposition to holiness, they had heeded the message as preached by John the Baptizer and by Jesus and exercised their prerogative to change their mind. As a result, they were promised a share in the kingdom of God.
At its second level of development, the parable offered a dual message of nudge and nurture for the Matthean church. As John P. Meier explained it, the yes-sayers may symbolize the Jews while the no-sayers may symbolize the Gentiles. In Mt, Jesus welcome to tax collectors and sinners is meant to point ahead to the churchs welcome to the Gentiles. (Matthew, Michael Glazier Inc., Wilmington: 1980).
For contemporary believers, the parable offers a lesson in reality. Neither son was perfect; both fell short of the ideal of accepting their fathers will and then acting upon it in loving obedience. Both sons, like all of humankind, were flawed by sin. The critical and life-saving difference between the two sons was the fact that one had the good sense to remember the love of his father, to turn form evil and decide to do what was right. Today, each of us is afforded a similar opportunity by a loving forgiving God. Will you exercise your prerogative as a believer to change your mind?
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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