HOMILY for 26th Sunday per annum (A)

Ezekiel 18:25-28, Ps 24; Phil 2:1-11; Matt 21:28-32

tumblr inline ox0mz9Wg4F1qfwzu4 5000At the end of last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus said “So the last will be first, and the first last”. So, the order of things, and our human ways of accounting for things, and of relating to one another, are all upended by the generosity – indeed, the superabundant grace – of God. Although today’s parable is separated from last Sunday’s by a whole chapter, it does pick up that saying of Christ’s. Once again, the last are first, and the first last. This Sunday, Jesus is speaking to the religious authorities in the Temple, they who are secure in the Law and who think themselves safely righteous. But the Lord says, “tax collectors and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you”. So, the last, that is, the outcasts and despised of society will be first, and the first will be last. How does this overturning of the ordering of things come about? By God’s grace.

For just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation and brought order to chaos, arranging all things according to God’s wisdom and providence, so in the working of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit hovers over the chaos of our lives, and the disorder of human society and human hearts, and he brings order to them, arranging all things sweetly according to divine wisdom and providence.

In God’s kingdom those who are first are not those who think themselves righteous, or better than others, or who have power and influence over others. For the excessive desire for excellence resulting in dominance over others is the vice of pride, and the proud resist the gentle ordering of the Holy Spirit. So, the prideful tend to remain in a state of interior disorder, turned inwards on the self, while all appears to be well exteriorly. In God’s kingdom, those who are first are those who are last, that is, the least, the lowly, the humbled. For it is the “humble and contrite heart”, as the psalmist says, that the Lord will not spurn. Or rather, with humility of heart, one is actually ready to learn; ready to be shown to be wrong; ready, therefore, to change. And in the working of grace, the greatest gift that Man has is that he can change.

The angels, after all, have their wills fixed because their knowledge is so perfect and complete that they know exactly and fixedly what they want. Man, however, is a different kind of creature – we gain knowledge discursively and gradually, and we frequently get things wrong or lack understanding. The more we acknowledge this, in all humility, then the more we can change and improve and grow in wisdom and knowledge. Hence Blessed John Henry Newman said: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. If I may paraphrase this, Newman rightly observes that to become perfect is to have been changed and perfected by God’s grace. For this is the aim of God’s grace acting upon the human soul, to convert us, change us, mould us, transform us, and ultimately to make Man into partakers of God’s own nature. Hence our hearts must be malleable. Pride hardens the heart but humility keeps it supple.

The suppleness of the first son’s heart is shown in the Greek word metameletheis. It has been translated as ‘repent’ although this is not quite right. The Jerusalem Bible is more colloquial but is quite accurate in saying that the son “afterwards thought better of it”. Because the Greek word literally means ‘after-care’ which implies that what makes a person change his mind is that one’s conscience is anxious or cares about what has been done, and so one repents of a decision and does otherwise. One gets a sense that the son does care for his father, and his conscience pricks his soft heart, and so he goes off to help his father in the vineyard. The hope of every sinner lies in this possibility: that, with grace acting upon the conscience, one’s initial refusal can turn into assent; disobedience into obedience; selfishness into love.

The interior life of the other son is somewhat harder to penetrate, but his response might offer us a hint. He says, literally in the Greek, “That’s me, lord” or “I am, lord”. It’s an odd response but it suggests that he’s already there, already in the vineyard – something like saying “I’m there, lord”. The problem of the religious authorities whom Jesus was addressing is that they thought they were there, too; they thought, pridefully, that they had made it. And so, they have no need of change or growth or challenge; they had everything sussed. And the very respectful term ‘kyrie’, meaning “lord” or “sir” comes across as mere lip service. Hence Jesus says earlier on in St Matthew’s Gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21). Each of us, then, must beware of presuming that we are already in the kingdom, or that we do not need to change. If so, then, inverting Newman’s statement, we might say that we are already dead if we don’t change.

The work of grace is to bring order to our chaos, to change us into Christ. Thus St Paul’s words should live in our hearts so that this work of grace is possible: “in humility count others better than yourself”. Humility. This is the way of Christ who overturned the cosmos by becoming Man even though he is God. This is the way of God whose humility led him to Death even though he is Life itself. And this is the way of Love who overturned the finality of Death because, as the Song of Songs says, “love is strong as death” (8:6). Indeed, Love overturns Death, hence “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name”.

Christ’s way becomes ours too when, in co-operation with God’s grace, we humble ourselves and allow the Holy Spirit to re-order our lives and our priorities. Then, the first shall be last and the last first: such is the way of love. And if we’re to become like Christ then we too shall need to humbly love and forgive as he does. “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus”, says St Paul. So, the Holy Spirit comes to make this change in us if we allow him to. Are we humble enough, brave enough, faithfully trusting enough to allow God to change our minds and our ways; to stir up our consciences just as the first son had his conscience disturbed; to sweetly and gently arrange our lives according to his divine wisdom and providence? Last Saturday I attended the Simple Profession of four of our brothers, and when they were asked if they were ready to consecrate their lives to God, they said, “Yes, with God’s help and yours”.

As St Therese of Lisieux once wrote: “Jesus, I am too little to perform great actions”. So, conscious of our littleness, let us always humbly depend on God’s help, and also the help and prayers of our fellow Christians, especially the saints. In humility, let us surrender ourselves to God’s will as Christ did, confident that his grace is at hand to heal our wounds, to widen our hearts and souls, and to transform our lives. God desires that we be united to him in love, and so he wills to give us the means to accomplish his desire. All that remains is for us, daily, to offer him a humble and contrite heart; a heart supple enough to change, a conscience capable of ‘after-care’. Because, for as long as we breathe, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is being breathed over us by our loving God. He hovers over the chaos of our life with all its initial refusals and mistakes, and waits for our consent so that he can restore order and beauty to us. Can you hear the voice of Wisdom? He says: “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come away”! (Sgs 2:10).