26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – September 27, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 24:4-9; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
(1) The “Philippian” Question
We continue reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians this week. And the Philippians have an important question. And it’s a question that, I’m guessing, a lot of us have, especially in these months: “What are we supposed to do?” The Philippians lived in a world that was inundated with secular ideology, pagan practices, moral debauchery, persecution for their faith. Every day they were faced with a government that shared almost none of the values they held. 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 had that simple answer we heard last week: “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27).
It’s a simple command: “conduct yourselves.” “Conduct yourselves” (Greek: πολιτεύομαι) literally means, “be a citizen,” or, “behave as citizens.” So Paul is commanding the Philippians, “In the midst of all that is going on, in the face of the horrible things going on, behave as citizens. But not as citizens of Philipi or Rome. Behave as citizens of the gospel.”
The other people who lived in Philipi were Roman citizens, retired Roman soldiers living in this Roman colony in northern Greece. And so for them, as Roman citizens, living as citizen of Rome in Philipi, their job was to do just that: behave as citizens of Rome, even though they were not in Rome. And as behaving as citizens of Rome there in Philipi, they would spread the culture and civilization of Rome. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; when in Philippi, keep doing as the Romans do.
And so Paul urges the Philippian Christians to live their citizenship too, but a different kind of citizenship. A citizenship of the Gospel. A heavenly citizenship. What Paul is encouraging is 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). And that’s what our second reading today gets at. Paul urges the people to stop thinking as the world thinks, and to start thinking with the mind of the Messiah, the mind of Jesus Christ.
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. Think with the mind of Jesus Christ!” Why? So that everyone’s thinking may be in line with one another (2:2). So people don’t fall into ideological battles and camps. Things don’t seem to change, huh? Everyone on the same page? That’s easier said than done.
(2) The Temptation: Do Our Own Thing
The constant temptation we face is to do our own thing. We get baptized, we pray, we go to Mass—sure. But what shapes our life, what guides our decisions, what we focus on—often it’s our own stuff, our own jobs, our own plans and projects. We do what we think. When we’re faced with all of the events going on in the country and in our our state and in our city and in our families—when we bump up against all of this, we very quickly start thinking just like anyone else. That’s the simple message of the Gospel today. We can easily say, “Yes,” to the father…but then we don’t do it. We profess our faith, we pray, we go to Mass…but then we do our own thing. It’s not our faith or what we profess to believe that gives shape to our life, but just whatever it is that seems to fit with our mindset.
This is what Paul is warning against. “Behave as citizens of the Gospel,” he says, but then be “of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing” (2:2). This unity in mind and thought isn’t easy, it doesn’t come naturally. Again, it would not take us too long to realize that, here in the church today, there is a lot of difference of mind and thought on issues. We don’t see things the same way. And it’s because we don’t think with the mind that Paul prays for.
Now, in Rome, and being a Roman citizen, there was a simple solution to the problem of not thinking as the Romans thought. They would just kill you, throw you in prison, exile you. Rome was not a safe-haven for freely sharing ideas, trying out new things. If you didn’t like how things were, tough for you. They enforced unity of mind and thought. But we know that doesn’t work. There are days where we wish we could force people to think in a certain way, make certain laws, enact certain policies. And you can make laws and rules for many different things. And people can more or less go along with it. But begrudgingly conforming to the law, and actually changing minds and hearts—well, that’s completely different.
(3) Conversion & Metanoia: Change of Mind
And we know that. We know that we can’t force people to see things in a certain way. But what do we constantly want to do? We want to legislate and enforce it. We think faith and the power of the Gospel isn’t powerful enough, it’s not producing the results we want on the arbitrary time-table we have decided on for ourselves. And so when the Father tells us, “go out and work in the vineyard today,” we quickly say, “Yes!” But then we don’t do it. We go off and do our own thing, trying to use our own methods and plans. We think we’re working in the vineyard, but really we’re just doing our own thing.
(4) “This is how you should think among yourselves”
What does Paul encourage the Philippians to do? There they are, in the midst of a government that is unjust, threatening more injustice—what does Paul say? 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? “Have the mind of the Messiah.” And what does that look like?
“[Jesus], though he was in God’s form, did not regard his equality with God as something he ought to exploit.” Stop there. We do the exact opposite of this all of the time. We think, “If I were in charge,” or, “If I made the decisions around here.” The first thing we think to do is exploit our power and influence. If we are going to get people think the right way, let’s use power and force. But has that ever worked? Caesar, this was his method: he exploited his quasi-divine power to impose his own mindset on the people. How long did that last? Last time I checked, the Roman Empire fell off the map.
What did Jesus do instead? “Instead, [Jesus] emptied himself, and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of humans.” Jesus could have used divine power to accomplish his mission, he could have exploited his divine power. Jesus did not have to allow anything bad to happen. But instead, he took on the form of a slave, he became a weak human being.
And then what? “He humbled himself, and became obedient even to the point of death, death on a cross.” And that’s the crux of it, huh? Jesus, God himself, didn’t accomplish things by use of divine power and imposition. Instead, he emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient.
Jesus knows that you cannot force someone to change their mind. You cannot force someone to love you. Sure, you can enforce rules, offer punishments for breaking rules. But people’s hearts and minds? Those are not changed by worldly power or civil law.
(5) “Which of the two did the Father’s will?”
Paul admits it, “Yes, you live in a broken and backwards world. Yes, it is frustrating. But we are not going to do anything by playing their own game, thinking like they think. Instead, lets do what Jesus did! Let’s put, put on the mind of the Messiah! Behave as citizens of the gospel, as citizens of heaven. Let’s think with the mind of Jesus Christ!”
We keep saying “Yes” to being people of faith, “Yes” to wanting to work in the vineyard of the Lord and do his will. But oftentimes, as soon as we say that “yes,” we start making our own plans and going off to do our own thing.
Jesus’ question in the Gospel isn’t, “Which one was a good person? Which one did good things?” Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the Father’s will?” Which one took the form of a servant, emptied himself of their own plans and ideas, humbled themselves, and became obedient. Which one heard the Father, and did what He asked?
Yes, it can be very tempting to think that faith and the power of the Gospel isn’t powerful enough, it’s not producing the results we want on the arbitrary time-table we have decided on for ourselves.
But God’s ways are not our ways. Emptying ourselves? Humbling ourselves? Obedience to the Father’s will? What? “I’ve got a better idea.” That’s exactly what Paul is warning against. Don’t be scandalized by God’s gentle way of working throughout human history. God’s way is not to overwhelm with external and imposing power, but to give us freedom and to elicit love.