Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, September 27, 2020
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!
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.
Jesus upbraids the religious leaders of his day for failing to recognize the hand of God at work in events of their lives.
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:
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,
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?
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).")
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 July 16, 2020