25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – September 20, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
The early Christians were forced to live the newness of the gospel in a pluralistic world, in which the values they carried were not recognized and accepted…The early Christians had to bear witness to the newness they experienced within a context of intolerance and persecution.Julián Carrón
(1) What are we supposed to do?
This letter we have from St. Paul to the Philippians is one of the most popular of Paul’s letters. It is only four chapters long, takes up three pages in the Bible. You could read it in ten minutes. And if you’ve been a little “down” recently, watching the news maybe, getting a little too wound-up in the fate of the world, or even just struggling with the question of, “What in the world can I do in a world like this? Where is the hope?”—this letter is for you.
The Philippians lived in a world that was inundated with secular ideology, pagan practices, moral debauchery, persecution for their faith. And every day they were faced with a government that shared almost none of the values they held; a government which has no room for “cultural diversity” or “tolerance.” These Philippian Christians were faced with secular leaders that were arrogant, rude, power-hungry, deceptive, unfair. Slavery was still around. Racism was rampant. Intolerance and bigotry and prejudice were quasi-virtues of the culture. Abortion was just fine. The poor were neglected. Immigrants were…well, not great. Taxes were unfair, to say the least. Deadly diseases without a cure were just a normal thing. This is what the Philippians woke up to every morning. This is what they had to look forward to every day. And every day they had to be thinking, “Not so great being a citizen of this place!”
And so their big question, the question they had to ask each and every day was: in the face of all of this, what are we supposed to do? And Paul has a simple answer: “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). Cu-lassssic Paul! People are just looking for some good advice, just want some simple answers, a little letter that tells you what to do. And what does Paul write them? “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel.” Great.
(2) “Conduct yourselves” = “Behave as citizens”
But that simple command from Paul is the point! That simple command: “conduct yourselves.” Conduct yourselves—politeuomai (πολιτεύομαι) in Greek—means “be a citizen,” or, “behave as citizens.” Paul commands the Philippians, “In the midst of all that is going on, behave as citizens of the gospel.” Later on, Paul is going to say, “Our citizenship [same derivative] is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Behave as citizens of heaven. And so what is he saying? “Stop caring about this world and just wait until you die and go to heaven”? No! That’s not how citizenship worked then.
Remember, these Christians are in Philippi. And Philippi is was a Roman colony in northern Greece. And the “citizens” of Philippi were actually Roman citizens, retired Roman soldiers from the civil war. And since Rome was overcrowded, and Caesar didn’t need a bunch of ex-soldiers getting restless and hungry in Rome, he settled them in Philippi. So as “citizens of Rome” living outside of Rome, living in Philippi, what were these ex-soldiers supposed to do? What did it mean to “behave as citizens of Rome”? Well, it meant to spread the culture and civilization of Rome where you lived. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, when in Philippi, keep doing as the Romans do.
But Paul urges the Christians, even in the midst of this culture, even in this place where the values and morals they embraced were not valued or accepted—Paul urges the Christians to live the newness of the gospel, their “heavenly citizenship,” in the midst of this. Paul never talked about lobbying the Roman senate to get better treatment for the Christians. Paul didn’t incite protests and riots in order to change the atrocities going on in the world. What did Paul say? “Behave as citizens of the gospel.”
(3) God Does Not Think As We Think: Put on the mind of the Messiah
Paul is encouraging an entirely new way of thinking, a new vision of reality. Throughout the letter he is encouraging people to think with the mind of the Messiah (c.f., Phil 2:5-11). He’s picking up on that line from our first reading from Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8). Paul urges the Philippians to stop thinking as the world thinks and to start seeing things through the divine vision. Because what happens? When we get stuck in our own way of thinking, when we get entrenched in our own ideologies and systems for making the world a perfect place—when we spend day after day after day thinking and complaining about the world and the country, and trying to change the world on worldly terms, thought politics and power and money—when this is our vision of reality, when this is how we view the world, it only ends up in frustration, despair, division, animosity. It ends up in the echo chambers called cable news.
But Paul is saying, “Yes, you live in a broken and backwards world. Yes, it is frustrating. And yes, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that things are going to get better. But, look at it with the divine vision! Put on the mind of the Messiah! And behave as citizens of the gospel, as citizens of heaven. Behave as servants of Jesus Christ, the true Lord!”
That, he says—that is how a Christian is supposed to live in the midst of a world that is so openly hostile and contrary to their beliefs. Their values must be embodied in their own way of living. They must bear witness to the truth not through ideological debates, not through being closed-in on the echo chambers of their own opinion. That’s not how hearts and minds are changed, no. “Only the witness of the truth [lived out and embodied] can reach man’s heart.”
(4) Do you believe that the gospel or that politics has true power?
Why do we get uncomfortable when we hear the gospel? Why does this parable make us uncomfortable? Why does it grind our gears when we hear that someone who worked only one hour makes the same amount of money as someone who worked all day? Why does God’s radical generosity put us on edge? Because “you are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). But also because the Gospel has a strange way of seeping into our heart.
The gospel has power. The simple proclamation of the gospel—first and foremost through our manner of living—has a real power. And we tend to forget that. It’s not the power of solid and clinching argumentation, destroying someone in a debate, no. It is the power of a living witness that changes hearts and minds. “Behaving as a citizen of the gospel” way of life has true power.
Paul lived in a world where slavery and racism and xenophobia were fine. So did he say, “Well, things are never going to change. Can’t do anything about it.” No. Did he say, “Let’s fight! Let’s stage a revolt and overthrow Rome and finally set things right?” No. He “behaved as a citizen of the gospel.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul sends Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to Philemon, back to his master and owner. And in the letter, Paul encourages Philemon to welcome him back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…in the Lord” (Phm 16). In the ocean of slavery of the Roman Empire, Paul makes this simple gesture. But this simple gesture, and presumably Philemon’s change of heart—this was the beginning of the “way,” the “mind of God,” to eliminate slavery.
Paul lived in a world where abortion was fine. He never once brought it up. In a document over a hundred years after Paul, the Letter to Diognetus, we find one line about it. Actually, half a line. The Letter says, “Like others, [Christians] marry and have children, but they do not expose them.” That’s it. Nothing more. Were early Christians less pro-life? Were early Christians any less appalled by abortion and child sacrifice? No.
But the way the early Christians spread the gospel, implemented the behavior of citizens of the gospel, was not through political and legal imposition, but through witness. Christians didn’t see each other as black and white, slave and free. Christians got pregnant just like anyone else, but they don’t abort their kids. Their witness to living a citizens of the gospel, thinking with the mind of the Messiah, was truly powerful.
I’ve told you about my dad before. He’s a doc’ up in Wichita. And he worked a lot with the residents, the doctors in training. And there was this one resident he had who was pretty outspoken about her pro-choice and pro-contraception views. But her curiosity was piqued by this doctor, my dad, who lived life very differently from the other doctors she trained with. Here was this successful doctor who talked about how much he loved his wife (while the other doctors talked about “the ol’ ball and chain”). She noticed how this doctor loved his kids—all six and one-on-the-way of them—and was always talking about them, and how he couldn’t wait to go back home (while the other doctors talked about how they were going to go to play golf, or go to the gym, or find any excuse to stay out). And one day she got to meet my mom when they were both at the same function, and was changed by their conversation about her family. And I talked to this doc, and she said that it was through them—my parents living their life as witnesses, behaving as citizens of the gospel—that her opinions on abortion and contraception began to change.
The gospel—the gospel embodied in a new manner of living—has power. It opens the hearts of people. It cuts through the noise. It breaks open the echo chambers. The witness, a living witness of the newness and change the gospel brings; the embodiment of the gospel that people can see and touch and realize makes them more themselves—this is how the gospel’s power is wielded. But it’s upside-down: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It doesn’t work how we think it does. God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.
(5) “He emptied himself”
The central part of Paul’s letter is his call to think with the mind of the Messiah (we’ll read this next Sunday). He says:
Though he was in the form of God, Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He humbled himself, becoming obedient even to the point of death, death on a cross. Yet because of this, God has highly exalted him…c.f., Philippians 2:6-11
This is how the Messiah thinks; it’s upside-down. Jesus could have snapped his fingers and, with an imposing divine command, changed everything. Jesus could have started an armed rebellion that would never be defeated.
We think that. But he never thought that. Why? Maybe because he respects our freedom too much. Maybe because he knows that laws change, political leaders change—but the real battle is for the human heart. And the heart can only be won in freedom—not by coercion and force.
What if abortion were completely illegal in the world? What if racism and prejudice were completely eradicate from the structures of civil society? Would everything finally be fixed? No. Christians don’t see each other as black and white, slave and free—but Christians are seen spouting off racist and prejudicial things just as quickly as anyone else. Christians get pregnant just like anyone else, but they don’t abort their kids, right?—until you find out that around 50% of people who get an abortion are Christian (~25% are Catholic). Christians were more upset that football was cancelled by COVID than when going to Mass or Sunday service was canceled. The problem is much deeper. Civil laws can’t fix it. It’s a problem of freedom and the human heart. And laws don’t change that.
The solution? Start thinking as God thinks, with the mind of the Messiah, and behaving as citizens of the gospel.
A new reality is not built by speeches or organizational projects, but by living gestures of new humanity in the present—gestures in which people can see and touch what makes them more themselves…Gestures of a new humanity, that is, of friendship.Julián Carrón