First reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 24(25):4-9.
Second reading: Philippians 2:1-11.
Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32.
Link to readings.
At first glance, not perhaps the most promising readings this week! Even the usual link between the reading from the Old Testament and the Gospel is not all that easy to find. What the readings do seem to have in common is the theme of personal responsibility for salvation. While salvation is from beginning to end the product of divine grace, we are free to say "Yes" and "No" to God's invitation. God wants us to share eternal life as friends drawn by love, rather than puppets pulled by strings. And - the readings today suggest - God is prepared to take from us a lot of "No's" in the hope that finally our freedom to say "Yes" will prevail.
The First Reading, from Ezekiel 18:25-28, actually sets this direction, even if, seen out of context as it is here, it seems to take us into a rather grim world. Preachers would, in fact, be advised to read the whole of Ezekiel chapter 18 to see what the prophet is trying to say. He is vigorously challenging the notion that people are punished for the wrongdoing of their parents - an idea that Jesus himself had to refute in his day (see John 9:2-3). Ezekiel is making two points of capital significance in the development of biblical faith. The first is that of individual responsibility: no one is punished or deprived of life for wrongdoing they did not themselves commit. The second has to do with conversion: conversion from an evil pattern of life turns a person's destiny completely towards the positive outcome that God - far from wanting to punish - longs to bring about.
Of course, even this more attractive message needs careful handling. Bad things happen to good people - creating a problem that other writers in the Old Testament, notably the author of Job, felt obliged to address. When evil befalls a person, it is always foolish to conclude that they are being punished; suffering is the lot of virtuous and evil alike.
Without removing the mystery of suffering in people's lives, the New Testament takes the issue of salvation to a transcendent level: one's personal decision and pattern of life can affect whether one comes to share or miss out on eternal life with God.
The brief parable that makes up most of the Gospel, Matt 21:28-32, can be understood on various levels. In Jesus' own context it probably served to defend his practice, shocking to the religious authorities, of celebrating the discovery of God's mercy with those considered outcasts and sinners. In respect to such people, Jesus' fidelity to the will of his Father involves his acting inclusively rather than exclusively. At a deeper level, the parable powerfully makes the point that what God looks to-and can wait with infinite patience for-is the final outcome in people's lives. God can put up with an initial "No" and a lot of other "No's" besides on the way to a final and lasting "Yes". On the other hand, people who appear religious and obedient from the start may never have sufficiently plumbed the depth of God's mercy to know God as God really is. Conversion at depth gives the capacity to say "Yes" with an abundance of freedom that overflows into a pattern of life truly reflective of God's grace. A judgmental attitude towards others may indicate lack of true conversion and real knowledge of God: something that may keep such people waiting at the door, while those they have thought far less worthy enter before them.
What will ultimately determine fitness for eternal life is conformity of the human heart to the heart of God. None of us could ever amass sufficient good works to merit even a second of life with God. The latter will be God's gift in abundance if only we have grown-sometimes in the course of a very winding and to-and-fro life journey-into the capacity to receive it.
It is here perhaps that the Second Reading, from Phil 2:1-11, does have some bearing on the theme. It contains one of the great treasures of the New Testament: the very early "Christ-Hymn" that Paul quotes in order to remind the community in Philippi that the heart of good community relations is a sharing of the "mind" (disposition) of Christ. At all three stages of his "career", so to speak-pre-existent life with God; earthly life; exalted risen life-Christ displayed self-emptying love, something that issued forth in an "obedience unto death", even to the extremity of the cross. This is what being "in a divine state", being "equal to God", meant. Christian community life ought to be energised by the overflow of divine love that wells up within them through their existence "in Christ".
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media