Sep 23, 2011

26th Sunday: "A man had two sons" - and a change of heart

Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Phil 2: 1-11
Mt 21: 28-32

How many times a day do we change our minds? In my life as priest and pastor I find myself constantly shifting gears in response to the situations I encounter. I may have gone from joy, to confusion, to empathy, to gratitude, to humility, to laughter, to worry, to a host of other emotions in one day. People daily come in and out of my life through a phone call, an email, a visit to the office, outside walking from one part of the parish to another.

The priestly life, however, is not all “heavies” with people. Yet, it is not unusual to go from the joy of a baptism, to the sadness of a funeral, the high energy of a Sunday Mass, an attentive ear to someone who is concerned about their health and casual conversation over a cup of coffee, all in the same weekend – or even the same day! Let’s throw in a wedding as well. Shifting emotional gears or changing our minds frequently is the stuff of human experience. Think how often parents need the same with their developing children, all of whom want their parents full attention.

The Gospel for this Sunday offers us the story of two sons and a change of heart:

Mt 21: 28-32

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
"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."

The first son said “no,” then changed his mind and obeyed his father’s will. The second son was more deceptive. He first said “yes” but never followed through on his father’s will. Neither was the perfect child but the first one reconsidered his original rejection and honored his father’s will. The second gave mere lip-service to his father.

But, in come the tax collectors and prostitutes. Where did they come from? Doesn’t this just change the picture all together? This is a lesson about the grace of conversion and God’s desire that all be saved; that everyone has a place in his kingdom and all are called to repentance. God will welcome those who change their mind – even tax collectors and prostitutes who reject their former way of life and turn to the Lord. As we heard in last week’s Gospel, we are workers in the vineyard of the Lord and all who are faithful will reap the benefits of God’s generosity. The point of the parable is there is hope for all of us who turn our mind and heart toward God.

Yet, we resist change. I remember a wonderful insight a number of years ago when I pursued Master’s work towards Pastoral Counseling. We spoke of change and resistance in a counseling situation. Why do we resist change? Because we fear the truth will hurt us. Ouch! Although it is increasingly a concern these days that what is true (absolute?  relative?) is in a moral fog, the truth we need to face are the choices of our lives: will I do my "Father's" will or not? 

In order for effective change of heart I sometimes have to face the truth of my life; where I’ve gone wrong and made self-destructive choices for example. Or, I was dishonest towards my spouse or friend and now that relationship is in jeopardy. I weigh too much and need to cut back on the junk food and get more exercise. I need to say “I’m sorry” for the gossip I engage in. I know that I need to confess in the sacrament of reconciliation but I am ashamed of what I need to say. The point is we fear the truth for I may be hurt in some way, so I resist change.

Yet, the grace of God is available to us not to harm us but to bring us to peace and joy. A burden is lifted and I can begin a new direction. It may “hurt” a bit but it isn’t fatal.

The Eucharist brings us to recognize the overwhelming love of a God who knows our sin, flaws, weaknesses, and honors the sincere efforts we make to do the right thing. Because the Eucharist is not a thing but a person, we call him “Bread of life,” food for the journey, healing for the sick, and Christ come among us. We pray, “Lord, have mercy” and "Lord, I am not worthy that you come under my roof . . .” Life is a journey towards health. While we care for our physical health it sooner or later declines. However, our moral and spiritual development is not constrained soley by this life. We grow towards that greater good in a process of change and renewal.  That greatest good of all is eternity in the presence of God himself.

In our beautiful second reading from Philippians, we hear: "Who though he (Jesus) 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 . . . he humbled himself . . ."  God changed for us that we may be changed in his image. 

Where am I resistant to change? Why? Do I fear the truth? How can I begin anew? Where is God calling me to his vineyard and what is my response?

Let’s take a little time to reflect towards Sunday . . .