Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, October 1, 2023

Before the first reading:

Early Hebrews liked to believe that children inherit the guilt for their ancestors' sins, and that sinners cannot really reform. In prior verses, Ezekiel demolishes these traditional beliefs. But this makes the people respond that God's ways are unfair!

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Paul tells his dear friends that what will endear them to him even more is if they behave like Christ. Then he describes Christ by quoting an even older Christian hymn.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Jesus upbraids the religious leaders of his day for failing to recognize the hand of God at work in events of their lives.

First Reading, Ezekiel 18:25-28

Our Liturgical Setting: In today's gospel (Matthew 21:28-32) Jesus speaks of obedience to God and of disobedience, of repentance and of obstinacy, and of the "last" taking the honors reserved for the "first." Jesus might just as well have proclaimed this passage from Ezekiel. To see why, read the gospel. Then come back to this passage.

The Theological Situation: In chapter 18, Ezekiel challenges two old beliefs common among his people:

The chapter begins with prophet announcing that God wants the people to stop repeating (and believing) an old proverb, "Parents have eaten green grapes, and their children's teeth are set on edge." He goes on to describe God's response to three generations of a certain family. A certain man is good; he does not worship idols, commit adultery, or charge interest on loans. He shares food and clothing with the poor. He is fair in his judgments of others. Such a man is upright in God's eyes, and he shall live. Now this man has a son "prone to violence and bloodshed," who chooses to do everything wrong. He is not upright, and by God's judgment, shall not live. And there is a grandson who, "in spite of seeing all his father has committed, does not imitate him." He acts more like his grandfather than like his father. So he does not inherit his father's disfavor with God, but rather is upright; he, too, shall live.

Not content just to upset the people's old belief about inherited guilt, Ezekiel attacks their convictions about "once a sinner, always a sinner." He asserts that it is possible for a wicked person to renounce his sins, begin respecting God's law, and live uprightly. Such a one will not die but live, says the Lord through Ezekiel. None of his crimes will be remembered against him. At least not by God, for the implication is that the people rather enjoyed remembering the sins of others, and condemning them over and over. Why else would Ezekiel need to make this prophecy?

Likewise it is possible for a good person to turn away from uprightness and to forfeit the favor of God and neighbor. Such a person's past good deeds will be "forgotten from then on." He shall die for his sins.

Now it's these two challenges to old beliefs, these assertions that children are not to bear their parents' guilt and that both the upright and especially the wicked can reverse their ways and reverse their standing in God's eyes, that precede the verses of today's selection. These are the new prophetic revelations that make the people say "God's ways are unfair." Ezekiel's response is unsympathetic and uncompromising. "This is the way God is, people, despite what you used to think. It's your own sins, not your fathers', that have got you into trouble. Repent, take responsibility. It's possible. You can live. No excuses! 'I take no pleasure in the death of anyone -- declares the Lord Yahweh -- so repent and live' (18:32)"

Proclaiming It: Ezekiel is very contentious here. He deserves a vigorous proclamation. A good way to deliver this in your Sunday congregation would be to imagine you are Jesus in that heated discussion with the chief priests and elders. Their arrogance is getting to you, so you reach in your pocket, pull out your copy of Ezekiel, open it and say,

Don't be afraid to sound vehement. Ezekiel wasn't; he was talking (and you'll be reading) about issues of life and death.

A Two-Sentence Homily Starter: Reverend Preacher, now that you're reminded of the context in which Ezekiel spoke this oracle, ask if your own congregation labors under some obsolete beliefs or practices from which God might want to liberate them. What's keeping them from accepting responsibility or from believing that new life and conversion are really possible?

Second Reading, Philippians 2:1-11

The Theological Background: If you read last week's introduction to this series of readings from Philippians, you know how intimate Paul was with his audience. That personal, even vulnerable tone continues in the first two paragraphs of this selection.

What Paul does next is very interesting. By all means, proclaim the long form of this passage. (Don't even ask the preacher/presider for permission to use the long form. If anything, ask the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship why there's even an option here.) Here's why the "extra" paragraphs (really stanzas) are so important:

Evidence in the Greek-language original (well, in the oldest manuscripts we have) shows these paragraphs were originally a hymn (or, less likely, a poem). Paul is quoting something even more ancient than his own letter (its style and vocabulary convince scholars it's not Paul's own composition). Both Paul and the church in Philippi must have known and revered this early formulation of the mystery of Christ. When we read this today, we're getting back to basics about as far as we can get. It's possibly the oldest surviving public statement of the Christian creed. (The oral traditions about the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus didn't take written form in the gospels until after Saint Paul's death.)

So the lector should prepare for this by savoring this text slowly and reverently. Notice the cycle:

Proclaiming It: The English translation available to us doesn't seem poetic or worthy of singing. Until the right poet/musician comes along who can render the passage more beautifully, it's up to you speak it faithfully, with the solemnity that its venerable status calls for. (Tony Carlin, Music and Liturgy Director of Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Napa, California, U.S.A, says the right poet/musician may have arrived. He recommends "Ken Canedo's new 'Jesus Christ Is Lord' (OCP [Oregon Catholic Press]) - we're singing it this weekend [September 24-25, 2011]. Also, of course, Walker's better-known 'At The Name Of Jesus' (OCP).")


Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

The late Roger Karban's last column on this Sunday's readings



Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

A friend once mentioned, based on the gospel Jesus' comment in Mark 2 that he came not to call the just but sinners, that only sinners can be Christians. Jesus didn't come to save anyone who presumed she or he was already saved. No doubt that's why conversion is brought up so frequently in the Christian Scriptures. For Jesus' followers, there's always a need and a chance to “repent,” to turn our value systems upside down. We never reach a point in our faith when we can start to coast, content just to be on an even keel. Faith implies we're committing ourselves to a constant struggle.

The God whom Jesus of Nazareth preached isn't a God who just carries snapshots of us in his/her billfold, glancing at them whenever we seek some divine help. “Primitive” people who won't let tourists take their picture because they believe the process will kill them are correct. Photographs do kill us. They stop our lives at a specific time and place in history. Unless we're masters of photo retouching, we'll always be the same person we were the instant the camera snapped us. We can't grow or change.

Thankfully God doesn't have photos of us. God actually carries us, the living, evolving individuals he/she created. As long as we live, we can always repent; we can see people and things from a perspective we never before noticed and develop a new way of judging them.

Obviously that belief prompts Matthew's Jesus to tell the two son's story which triggers today's gospel pericope about prostitutes and tax collectors “entering the kingdom of God” before the “righteous” even know such a kingdom exists. No matter what someone once decided to do, say or be, that person isn't bound to defend that choice for the rest of his or her life. It's embarrassing for the good folk to be told that society's outcasts and sinners are better at repenting than they are.

More than 500 years before Jesus' birth, Ezekiel proclaims a similar message. But the prophet emphases it's a two-way street. Just as someone can turn from evil and embrace good, so someone can reject good and start down a path of evil. Value systems can always be switched — in either direction.

Paul's Philippians passage seems to fit perfectly into today's conversion theme. The Apostle begins by encouraging his readers to change the way they regard one another, urging them to be “. . . of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing,” eventually reaching a point in which they cease looking out for their own interests and begin to be concerned for the interests of others. But, for me, the interesting part of these verses comes when he uses Jesus as an example of such an “emptying” of self. Did this Galilean carpenter actually go through a conversion at some point of his earthly existence?

Most of us who buy into John the Evangelist's theology that the historical Jesus was God from all eternity find this somewhat disturbing. We each have a holy card photo of a divine Jesus. But as we know from Romans 1, Paul seems to believe Jesus wasn't God until God raised him from the dead. He was “a man like all of us except in sin.” Jesus also needed to experience a conversion. Some scholars contend his baptism by John in Mark 1 was actually triggered by that change in his value system.

We shouldn't be discouraged when we find it difficult to change our life's perspective. It might have taken Jesus of Nazareth about 30 years to change his! Certainly explains the length of his “hidden life” better than any other interpretation I've heard.


Credit for the picture at the top:

Karen Langan Kulla, American, born 1955, Little Pigeon River (detail), used with permission. Click here to see a larger, uncropped version. When Karen, a friend of the author, posted this picture on Facebook, she hinted that her husband could be seen in the picture. The river is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, U.S.A.

This page updated October 1, 2023, to emphasize the long form of Reading II.