Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

Today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel gives us a basically simple message. If you do an evil deed or commit a sin then you will pay the price before God for what you have done, whereas if a person who has sinned repents of that sin and turns to God afresh, then that repentance brings down from God blessing and grace. We might ask ourselves why this basically straightforward message is delivered so emphatically here by the prophet Ezekiel – or, otherwise, why this simple message – which in fact is found many times across the scriptures both in the New Testament and the Old – have been selected on this Sunday from this specific place in the Old Testament? Why are we given this reading today?

To understand or give an answer to these questions it’s good to know a bit about the historical context of the reading. The prophet Ezekiel spoke and preached in the 6th century before Our Lord. This was the time when the Jews had been exiled from their homeland and taken to the land of Babylon – that is in modern Iraq. This was a painful experience for the Jews and they experienced it as a time of deprivation – deprivation from their homeland, the place they believed that God had given them and their ancestors, deprivation in that they were removed from the Temple, the place of worship and the privileged place in which they met God, and moreover deprivation in that they were in a foreign or alien country, a place that was unknown. The Jews understood that the reason for this painful time of suffering was that they were receiving a punishment from God – punishment for the sins of their nation, sins of turning against the covenant of God and his laws. For we read around this time that the Jews had begun to worship the idols of the nations round about them. They had broken the covenant by adopting some of the practises of the pagan nations – for instance adopting the fertility cults of the Canaanites – and they had desecrated the temple and broken in one way or another the various laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai. And so the Babylonian exile was understood as a divine act of punishment for the sins that they as a nation had committed. The nation had sinned, and the nation would pay the price for its iniquity.

Now in a time in which there is a belief of a corporate responsibility for sin, that is, that the nation or group has sinned and the nation or group is paying the price for its sin, there are a few ideas or mindsets that can be generated. For example, if you believe that your nation has sinned and is being punished for its sin, you might ask yourself what would be the point of you personally changing your ways and converting to a more righteous life? If everyone will pay the penalty anyway, what good or blessing will your own change of life bring about? Or, alternatively, if you believe that you are not guilty of the sins of the rest of the nation and yet you will be punished for those sins, then why should you remain righteous and just before God? Would it not be simpler or easier simply to go along with the mentality and actions of the crowd?

Now it was the prophet Ezekiel who specially was sent to remedy or correct these ways of thinking, by emphasising the idea of the personal responsibility of the believer before God as his or her judge. The Jews were reminded by the prophet that if a person sinned before God then for the sin that he or she had committed he or she would be judged. Whereas, if a sinner repented of their sin and turned to God in faith and trust then he or she would receive from God the blessing that sprang from his repentance.

We might think that the sort of thinking that applied to the Jews many centuries ago might not have much relevance or significance for us people today. But in fact, if we think about it, some ideas like the Jews’ might be found in our contemporary situation. For example, take the topic of water resources, which we in this part of the world are called these days to conserve, in a local situation in which there has been a great shortage of water. Imagine that the shortage of water is particularly brought about by a profligacy or waste among us who use it. If it’s particularly our wasteful attitude towards water that causes the shortage of it then we will all suffer from the consequences of that carelessness. Forgive me for simplifying this a bit – I know this one’s a bit more complex than I am saying but bear with me as I’m giving it as an example. So, a person might say to themselves, “What is the point of me myself changing my attitude and behaviour if we all suffer the same consequences anyway?” Another example could be the following. We know that these days the morality or idea of ethics among many of our contemporaries in our society or societies is not the same as the traditional Christian idea of morality. People seem to have an idea of morality that is straying further and further from the traditional Christian ethic. For instance, in the field of sexual ethics, the contemporary norms or ideas are often very different from the ones that we hear in the Sacred Scriptures or we find in the Tradition of the Church. And so, in this context, a Christian might think, “Well, if this is the way that people are going in general, for better or worse, then what difference does it really make if I myself buck the trend and act differently? What difference will it really make if I rather adhere to traditional Christian morality and practise and avoid the ethos or attitude of those who I find around me?” Even, and I don’t think we always even avoid this, but more extreme, a person might think, “If everyone is rushing down to their ruin then we might all as well go to perdition together.”

Now in these situations or in these kinds of perspectives the teaching of the prophet Ezekiel has also a modern relevance and application. Because here too the prophet Ezekiel reminds us ourselves of the primary personal responsibility for sin. It doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing – if we commit sin then God will hold us responsible for what we do. Whereas if we repent from sin God looks upon us with favour and love and grant us blessing and grace in response to our conversion of life and our repentance. The message is in fact the same for us.

If then this first reading talks about the personal responsibility for sin, we find that the Gospel takes a different angle on the reality of sin. Let’s see what it is. In the Gospel Jesus speaks about the man who has two sons, to the first of whom he says go and do such and such and the son says “I won’t do that” but afterwards he changes his mind and he goes. On the other hand the Father says to the second son the same thing – go and do this – and the second one says “I will go” but then in fact he does not go. This story can’t but raise a bit of a smile in many of us because I think we can relate to it personally. On the one hand we can take the story at a simple or straightforward level. I think each of us can for ourselves think of occasions where we have done exactly this – made a promise that we did not keep or sometimes said that we will not do something but then in fact we have done it. But the story can also be understood at a deeper level and it’s this sense that our Lord particularly proposes to us as we gather from the second part of the Gospel. This is that, we who come to church, by our very presence in the church, and by our statement of faith that we make here, are showing our intention to live in a certain way and live up to certain teachings. Whereas often we go back to our daily lives and we do the exact opposite of what we have said in the church we will do. On the other hand, certain persons who never come to church never make any profession or express any intention to do good works but in fact when it actually comes to it they do exactly what Jesus Christ says and they therefore put into practise his teaching.

We can find in this Gospel reading an expression of the weakness of humanity – of the fact that our good intentions, owing to the fragility of our nature, we very often don’t put into practice, or on the other hand, the unpredictability of our nature and our inconsistency, that sometimes spontaneously we or others can do what is good and right and it can apparently come from nowhere. We humans are weak, inconstant, vacillating, inconsistent often.

Now at this point we can briefly make the connection between the gospel reading and the first reading from Ezekiel, because these two aspects of our moral nature often go together – the first one, that we often forget our personal responsibility for sin and go along with the crowd. The second one, that our nature is weak and we can often be swayed to do what is wrong and not live up to our best intentions and ideals. We know that often it is upon our weakness that the expectations and demands of others play, and we can go along with what others think rather than following the demands or dictates of our conscience.

At this point we can turn to the second reading and to the teaching of Saint Paul. In the first part of this reading Saint Paul gives a list of some important Christian virtues to practice and of sins that should be avoided. He says that we should avoid selfishness or conceit, that we rather should be loving towards one another and that we should be unified with one another in full accord and of one mind. And, last but not least, he affirms the virtue of humility, of knowing our weakness and not thinking others better than ourselves. These are central Christian virtues and exactly the kind of virtues that we are invited to live out and put into action; and other the other hand these are some of the sins that we are called to avoid and to shun.

St Paul then goes on to give the example and model of Jesus Christ who above all is a model for the virtue of humility. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of the Father who took upon himself a human nature, who took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who became man and who in his life and in his death was obedient to God even unto the cross. Jesus then is the embodiment of virtue who does not allow himself to be swayed to the right hand or to the left but rather unfailingly does the will of his Father in heaven. Now Jesus is both God and man – God the all-perfect and all-loving god, because Jesus is the Son, the Word of the Father. But Jesus is also man – that is to say, he took upon himself our human nature, the human nature which had been wounded by the sin of Adam and Eve. Jesus was perfect in his divine nature but in his humanity of itself he was weak. This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews means when he says that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weakness but one who was tempted in every way like us though he did not sin (Heb. 4:15). Jesus knows what it is to be tempted and to be weak. If we apply this to the first reading, in the first place we see that Jesus had many opportunities to go along with the crowd. The most obvious example of this perhaps is when Our Lord was called by others to become a king over them – a revolutionary who could free the Jews from the political authority of the Romans. But Jesus did not accept this and rather fled in order that it would not happen, because he knew that this was not the will of his Father (cf. John 6:15). If we come then to the gospel reading we recall that Jesus himself knew what it was to experience the temptation to inconstancy. For example and most particularly in the temptations of Christ as recorded in the gospel. Jesus was tempted to commit sin by the devil – he knew what it was to be tempted – and yet he did not give way to that weakness but rather put into action the will of God and he served God and rejected the wiles or temptations of sin. We see also clearly how deeply Jesus knew this temptation when he prayed, during the agony in the garden, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39) Jesus then has embraced our human condition of weakness and the only manner in which we ourselves can overcome the weakness of our human state, overcome our tendency to go along with the crowd and give way to the weakness of our human nature, the only way that we can do this is in union with Christ and through the grace and the strength that he gives us. It is only in union with him, it is only by him, through him, with him, and in him that we can overcome the devil and rather serve God his Father in truth and in love. For Jesus, who knows what it is to be weak, united himself to our weakness in the mystery of the incarnation, so that as he shares our weakness so we might become participants in his divine strength and in his grace. This is the message of the gospel.

So then, this Sunday the readings from the Sacred Scriptures invite us to look deeply within ourselves and to be aware of the spirit that can sometimes enter into us, a spirit of resignation to worldly attitudes or ideas, but also a spirit of laxity and simply giving way to our weakness. They invite us, they encourage us, to unite ourselves with Jesus, the source of grace and to love and honour God our Father through and in Christ. They encourage us, whilst we are sinners in need of His grace, to persevere in the expectation and hope of that heavenly reward which he promises us for our service and our perseverance. Amen.