One of the age-old questions people ask is whether and how much people can really change. Is it actually possible to start over again, or are we fated to follow the same patterns, for better or for worse, all our lives? How we answer that will likely determine our attitude on any number of issues. And we’re not necessarily consistent in how we answer either. Starting over, wiping the slate clean, doing something new, starting all over again – all that is part of the language of America, isn’t it? Isn’t that part of what it meant to be an immigrant and come here in the first place – and keep moving? Americans remain the most mobile people in the world, the least rooted, the ones most ready to pick and go and try something else. On the other hand, in our own lives, we often feel stuck – in a place, in a job, in a relationship, in addictive or otherwise destructive behavior, whatever. We’re all increasingly aware of how limited our choices can sometimes seem, and we can make all the corresponding excuses.
It is true, of course, that we can never completely undo the past. Who we have been and what we have done – our actions, our choices, our mistakes, our failures – are part of who we are now. We are in some sense always products of our past. And being honest and realistic about who we have been and what we have done or failed to do, to recognize our limits and learn to live with them, has a certain value. But that can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and also perhaps particularly poisonous excuse, never to try anything new, to become a sort of silent spectator in the story of one’s life. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way things are,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!”
And yet change is just what Jesus was inviting the people to do with his story of the man with the two sons [Matthew 21:28-32]. As parables go, this seems like a simple one, a simple example of changing one’s behavior for the better. But, as Jesus’ concluding words of rebuke suggest, changing it for the better just doesn’t always happen. There is absolutely nothing automatic about it.
As he often did, Jesus told a simple story to make a serious point. Paul applied it to all of history, in which Jesus himself is the change. Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Saint Paul advised the early Christian community at Philippi [Philippians 2:1-11].
In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior (going back all the way to Adam), Jesus changed course. Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. In contrast to the typical, ordinary, normal, human self-centeredness, which dominates and directs most of human history (again going back all the way to Adam), Jesus’ obedience to his Father has changed our human history and has made it possible for each of us to undo our own destructive patterns of the past and alter the course of our own personal history.
It is still true, of course, that we cannot undo the past, and that we are in some sense always products of our past – both our own personal past and the collective past of our shared human history. But the good news of the Gospel is that something new really has happened in the world in Jesus. And because of that there is now no sin that we cannot break away from. We cannot undo the past, but acknowledging the past can set the stage for changing course in the present. That’s what repentance is – something we can now do, not on our own, of course, not all by ourselves, but by being remodeled in the image of God’s Son, who empowers us to share in his new life.
That’s why I’ve always liked the traditional Confession of Sin found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It starts out with a blunt admission of past failures: We have erred and strayed from they ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done. And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.
But then the next word is But! That But is God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake of his Son, as a result of which the prayer concludes grant, O most merciful Father for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of his holy Name.
In Jesus, the direction of human history has been changed, and the entire human race has been offered a change of heart, given the chance to change course, once and for all. In telling us this parable, Jesus makes clear that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failure to follow, but rather, having (as Saint Paul says) the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, to let ourselves be changed. Let’s get going, Jesus is inviting us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading!
Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 28, 2014