One of the age-old questions people persistently ask is whether and how much people can really change. Is it actually possible to start over, 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. Starting over, wiping the slate clean, doing something new, starting all over again, that is – or at least was - part of the language of America, what it meant to be an immigrant and come here in the first place. Americans have long been 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, most of us, most of the time, are as likely to resist that and seek stability instead. And sometimes we may 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 may really be.
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, not to mention those of our parents and those who preceded us – 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, where we have come from, and what we have done or failed to do, to recognize our limits and learn to live with them, has real value. But it can also immobilize. 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, of course, sometimes that may be all too true – at least on a human level. Yet change – real, fundamental change of heart - is just what Jesus was inviting the people to do with his story of the man with the two sons. As parables go, this one seems simple, a simple example of changing one behavior for another. 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. Paul wrote the familiar words we just heard to the Christian community he 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 ... Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.
In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, self-centered behavior (which dominates and directs most of human history going all the way back all the way to Adam), Jesus changed course. Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient, and his 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, 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 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. No, 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 – 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.
That’s one reason why we traditionally begin Mass with a confession of sin. Personally, I’ve always liked the traditional Anglican Confession of Sin. It starts out with a blunt admission of past failures: We have erred and strayed from thy 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 about two sons, 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 27, 2020.