The familiar words we just heard from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians [Philippians 2:1-11] were written to the Christian community Paul had founded and left behind at Philippi. Paul wrote to thank them for their generosity in the past and to encourage them to face the future.
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 a well known 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 what seems like typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior, Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. In contrast to the typical, ordinary, normal, human self-centered narcissism, which dominates and directs most of human history, Jesus’ obedience has made it possible to undo that destructive pattern and alter the course of human history, by creating new possibilities for us, both in relation to God and to one another.
Jesus’ obedience to his Father was not some isolated act. It was a total attitude that characterized his whole self. That was how God originally intended all of us to live. We cannot return to that original innocence; but, with God’s help, we can 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 know that! But that can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and a particularly poisonous excuse, to do nothing, to become (as one of my professors once said) 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!”
It’s true, of course, that we cannot undo the past; and that we are in a certain sense always in part products of our past. But the good news of the Gospel is that there is no sin that we cannot break away from. So, while we cannot undo the past, we can change course in the present - remodeling ourselves in the image of God’s Son so as to 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.
In telling us a parable about two sons, Jesus makes clear that there is more than one possibility - and that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failure to follow. Rather he challenges to become like the first son - and so 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, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 1, 2017.