Monday, September 29, 2008

Year A Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezk. 18.25-28; Ps. 25,4-5.8-10.14; Phil. 2,1-5; Matt. 21,28-32

The root of our English word mercy comes from Latin. It comes from the word meaning merchandise, or, something for which a price is paid. The price of God’s mercy was the life of his only begotten son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Lest this fact become too mundane and, I daresay, even meaningless, it is good to note that Jesus Christ, as we profess in the Credo, is the only begotten son of the Father. We are sons and daughters of the Father only through adoption. We are made by God, not begotten of him. We are adopted, through Christ Jesus, in baptism.

In our second reading today, St. Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to “[h]ave in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus” (Phil.2,5). What is this attitude we are to have? This question can be answered with one Greek word, taken from the very next verse, kenosis. Kenosis simply means an emptying. In the case of our Lord, he emptied himself of his divinity by not regarding his “equality with God as something to be grasped,” that is, held onto (Phil. 2,6). For our sakes he let it go and took “the form of a slave” in order to humble himself, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2,7-8). What does having an attitude of emptying mean for us?

The answer to this question is also one word: obedience. Obedience is the word that sums up Christ’s attitude to the Father. Hence, we must obey Christ just as he obeyed the Father. Obedience requires mortification, by means of which we empty ourselves, die to ourselves. Such obedience requires us to let go of our desire to be self-determining, to be, in effect, our own god, arbiters of morality, doing what we want. It requires everything of us, even when it does not make sense. Christ was obedient to the Father “even when the Father permitted him to be killed, which was an unjust thing” (Is It Possible to Live This Way: An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence, Vol. 1, pg. 127). His inability to comprehend the Father’s will, the Father’s reason why, is manifested in his plea to the Father in the garden that “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26,39). Indeed, the Father’s allowing this, at least in human terms, is unjust and unfair. In a word, it is mysterious.

Because we are Christians does not mean we renounce our right to be puzzled, even troubled, by the mystery of our redemption, by such a gruesome spectacle as the crucifixion. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard did not renounce this right when he wrote Fear and Trembling, which tackles this issue obliquely by examining the story of Abraham’s taking Isaac to Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice him in obedience to God’s command. Just as we ultimately make peace with Jesus’ horrific death because of the resurrection, so we find the violent premise of this story palatable only because, as the story reaches its dramatic peak, as Abraham “took the knife to slaughter his son,” an angel said to him "Do not lay your hand on the boy" (Gen. 22,10.12). After the angel’s intervention, God provided a ram and Abraham sacrifices it instead of Isaac, whose name, strangely enough, means laughter.

Despite the happy endings, we, like Kierkegaard, are left with a few questions, like what kind of God would command and/or permit such things and what kind of father would carry them out? If we permit ourselves to ask such fundamental and disturbing questions, we can move beyond mere sentiment to faith, which, in turn, enables obedience not only in the face of uncertainty, but of incomprehensibility. Only then can we have the same attitude as Christ, only then can prayer become a self-emptying, only then can we pray without calculating self-interest, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26,39).

Just as we talk about the inverse property of multiplication whereby 2x3=6 and 3x2 also =6, we can talk about the inverse property of our redemption in which Easter x Good Friday= Redemption and Good Friday x Easter also = Redemption. Stated less academically, just as it is necessary to see Good Friday from the perspective of Easter morning, it is equally important at times to see Easter morning from the perspective of Good Friday. Looking at things from this latter perspective is very often a good description of our lives here and now, the reality of our fallen world. The failure to recognize this reality results in the complete disconnection of faith from life. This failure also results in faith becoming a fantasy, an escape from reality, instead of a straight-on grappling with life. In the end, both of these responses amount to short-circuiting the mystery of faith, the mystery we have been chosen, according to God’s mysterious will, to embody.

This same kind of what we might call theo-logic is found in today’s Gospel when Jesus says to the chief priests and the elders: “When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him” (Matt. 21,32). My dear friends, by virtue of the fact we are gathered here, we, like prostitutes and tax collectors, are the ones who have changed our minds, which is what the word repentance truly means.

This brings us to the issue of fairness, which is our central theme this Sunday. The point is that God is not fair, at least in the sense in which we typically conceive of fairness, namely getting what we have coming to us. Let today’s Psalm be for us a correction and our plea- “Remember your mercies, O Lord” (Ps. 25, 6). God is merciful, even if that mercy, in the case of the crucifixion, is brought about in an unfathomably violent manner, and, in the case of the resurrection, in a way that seems too good to be true. The word we use to denote God’s mercy is grace. “Grace is God’s free and forgiving self-communication that enables [us] to share in the trinitarian relationship of love” (Mary C. Hilkert, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, pg. 577).

Let us pose one last question: Do you desire justice or mercy? I like very much what Bono, of the band U2, had to say on this matter in an interview when comparing grace to karma, which, if you believe bumper stickers, frequently runs over our dogma. Of course, karma is a Hindu concept that explains the system of reincarnation in which beneficial effects are derived from past beneficial actions and harmful effects from past harmful actions. In other words, karma means what goes around comes around, getting what you deserve. Bono makes clear that the grace is preferable to the cosmic hit-and-run represented by karma: “I'd be in big trouble,” he says, “if Karma was going to finally be my judge . . . It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own [righteousness]” (Christianity Today, August 2005). The Father is merciful, purchasing us at a very high price. So, keep karma. Along with St. Paul, let’s prefer Christ and him crucified. After all, it is the cross that marks the boundary of the limit divine mercy has set to evil in the world.

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