Readings for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time: EZ 18:25-28; PS 25: 4-5, 8-10, 14; PHIL 2: 1-11; MT 21: 28-32
Isn’t it amazing that Christianity has become so politically conservative? “Conservative,” of course, refers to a political attitude that is not only content with the way things are, but defends it. It’s as though God willed that the divine evolutionary process might come to a halt. It’ as though Jesus didn’t centralize the Kingdom of God and contrast it with the status quo.
Today’s liturgy of the word calls such stasis into serious question. It does so by issuing a clarion call to repentance – to a profound change of mind and attitude about what we think is important in life. It’s a demand to turn from what the readings call “wickedness” and an adoption of the attitude embodied in Jesus the Christ. That attitude, we’ll see, was not at all conservative but committed to the most radical change in perspective that one can possibly imagine.
Our readings’ call towards such change is general at first – addressed by the prophet Ezekiel to all the people of Israel. Writing in 6th century BCE, Ezekiel had previously threatened that his country’s wickedness would be met with destruction of its capital city, Jerusalem, by its arch-enemy, Babylon (modern Iraq). The wickedness in question, of course, was idolatry – the worship of something created as though it were God himself. In practice, idolatry involved the prioritization of money, power, pleasure and reputation at the expense of God’s favorites – the poor including especially the widows, orphans and immigrants in Israel – the traditional victims of the rich and powerful.
Then in the Gospel selection, the summons is directed more specifically to Israel’s religious and political leadership – to “the chief priests and elders of the people.” Jesus shocks (and no doubt delights) the impoverished standers-by when he observes that prostitutes and tax collectors are closer to God than these holy men. To Jesus’ audience, that would be like saying that Hugh Hefner, who died the other day, will get into heaven before the pope.
Seriously though, Jesus’ words indict the professionally holy while expressing scandalous approval for their opposite and despised numbers. But the readings go further still. In today’s selection from Philemon, Paul tells us that repentance involves adopting the same outlook as Christ’s. Shockingly, that involved abandoning the highest viewpoint imaginable – the position of God himself— and choosing to see and experience reality from the lowest possible – that of a crucified slave. Paul says, “For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.”
In other words, Jesus’ vision was shaped from history’s underside. As a humble peasant, he saw things from below, from the viewpoint of a slave who opposed empire and all it stands for – colonialism, exploitation, and the cult of pleasure, profit, power and prestige. That’s the meaning of Paul’s words about Jesus’ becoming obedient even to the point of accepting death on the cross. (Crucifixion, remember, was the punishment reserved for opponents of Rome’s empire.)
But why would the tradition have God doing such a thing? Why would it accord the poor and despised such exalted status, and invite us to imitate Jesus’ self-emptying? How does that help us repent? Might it be that the vision “from below” yields a fuller understanding of the world, and in so doing clarifies our repentance agenda?
Think about it for a minute in contemporary terms. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable actually have very limited experience and awareness. Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without any consciousness of the world’s poor majority. Wall Street executives rarely really see them. The poor are located in other parts of town. Most, even in the middle class, never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never saw the poor again, the rich and middle class think their lives would continue without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.
That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen. Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, people in those places can remain mere abstractions. Few of us know what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.
None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.
If the United States, for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered (mostly for the better). In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.
That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.
Perhaps that’s why this week’s reading repeats the thought: Jesus feels more at home with dishonest cheaters and sex workers than with the equivalent of pastors and senators. Working girls and petty thieves know more about the way the world operates and about what needs changing – repentance. And that’s why they’re more open to the ultimate change Jesus called for – the introduction of God’s Kingdom.
For their part, the rich and comfortable don’t even want to enter the kingdom. Jesus observed that they generally prefer Caesar’s empire to the Kingdom of God. That’s because in God’s Kingdom everything is turned on its head. It’s the way the world would be if God were king instead of Caesar – if God were in charge instead of Donald Trump or Barack Obama. In that new order, as we saw in last week’s Gospel, the first are last and the last are first. Generally speaking, the rich want none of that. They are conservative in the sense that they like the way things are. They simply don’t want to enter the Kingdom.
So Ezekiel was right in today’s first reading. Exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom is not a question of God’s unfairness, but of personal choice.
The question for us today, then, is both personal and political. Do we choose to be conservatives or to enter God’s Kingdom? Do we truly opt for the radical change embodied in the crucified slave from Nazareth?
Do we want to enter the kingdom or not? If we do, we must do what God did – become fully human. We must identify with the lowest of the low, and adopt their causes as our own.