26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; September 27, 2020
Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-9; Ph 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32
Both today’s 1st reading and today’s Gospel put the focus on doing the will of God; whatever we have done in the past, so long as we are in this life it is not too late to be converted to the will of God. Today’s 2nd reading reinforces this point by showing us the example of Jesus who became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.
I will return to this subject of obedience in more detail, but before I do so let me say a few more words on the whole meaning of this 2nd reading.
First St. Paul exhorts us to be united in love, one in heart and in mind. Actually, without unity of thought and purpose, unity in love is impossible.
If we compare life to a train trip, then two passengers on trains, going opposite directions, remain unknown to each other. Two passengers on the same train, but getting off at different stops, can have a friendly chat before they say farewell to each other. Complete unity is only possible between two passengers on the same train, getting off at the same stop, with the same reason for going to that destination.
St. Paul, does not only exhort us to strive for unity of mind and heart, he tells us the precise unifying factor: Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.
Now our English translation loses some of the force of the connection. We heard be of the same mind … thinking one thing …have the same attitude. In the Greek original the verb is always the same; a more literal translation might read: think the same thing … thinking one thing … think among yourselves what was in Christ Jesus. The sort of thought that is being referred to is the sort of thought that shapes and determines action. Christ’s action is characterized by obedience unto death; his thought is to give glory to his Father and expiate the sins of men.
If someone were to ask what Christ did during his whole time on earth someone might answer, “He loved.” That would be true enough, but it would also be rather vague. It would be more exact to say that “he obeyed.” The love of Jesus is expressed most of all through his obedience to the will of the Father.
How important is Christ’s obedience? In today’s reading we are told that his obedience won him the name above every other name. God set the man, Jesus Christ, as Lord of the whole universe, not just because he is the Son of God, but because of his life of perfect obedience, to the point of death on the Cross.
The Letter to the Hebrews also speaks about Christ’s obedience. There we learn that through his perfect obedience, he is established as High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (cf. He 5:7-10) By his obedience he more than makes up for Adam’s disobedience. (cf. Rm 5:12-21) We also learn that having come into the world to do the will of God, through that obedient will Christ makes of his Body a sacrificial offering for our sins so that by this ‘will’ we have been consecrated by the offering to the Body of Jesus Christ once for all. (He 10:10)
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the commemoration and renewal of Christ’s obedient sacrifice.
Obedience is the action of a servant or even a slave and in today’s 2nd reading we learn that Christ took the form of a slave.
That alone should be shocking, but what really offends us is what is expected of us, what should unite us in thought and purpose: namely, we must all have the attitude of obedient slaves, like Christ, seeking the glory of God.
At that point, each one of us instinctively wants to protest: “No way!” We might want to take our proud stand as citizens of the land of the free and declare, We have never been the slaves of anyone. (Jn 8:33) Actually some people who said these very words to Jesus ended up trying to stone him to death. (cf. Jn 8:50).
Why did they try to stone him? Because he claimed equality with God. (Jn 8:58)
That brings us back to the clincher in today’s 2nd reading. We don’t want to obey. We think it is beneath our dignity as free human beings. St. Paul points out to us that Jesus, who was equal to God himself, did not think it beneath his dignity; rather he freely took on our lowly human nature, enslaved to sin, to make up for the disobedience of our sin by his obedience. Now we have no excuse: Jesus, the Son of God obeyed, we must follow his example and obey.
The Gospels recount Jesus’ response to some messengers sent to him by St. John the Baptist. After telling them to report back to John what they saw and heard of his miracles and his teaching, Jesus concluded, Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. (Mt 11:6)
We live in an age that is quick to take offense, an age that has substituted for all the commandments of God one single commandment: “Though shalt not offend your fellow human being, especially not if he is black, female, or gay.” People are not concerned about offending God, but they are very much offended by the real Jesus (as compared to the fake watered-down Jesus).
Why is Jesus so offensive both to the people of his time and to the people of our time? Because he insists that he, a man, is the Son of God equal to the Father, and because he insists that we must obey him just as completely as he obeyed the Father. (cf. Jn 14:15,21)
Well, maybe, just maybe, so long as it is a matter of obeying God we can stomach that, just so long as we don’t have to be subject to another human being.
Well, what exactly does it mean to obey God? Or better to obey Jesus Christ? (cf. Mt 17:5)
Well, in the first place it does not mean obeying a voice whispering in our head, but it means keeping the commandments. (cf. Mt 19:17)
How do we know what the commandments are, what they mean, their full scope, and that they come from God and from Jesus Christ? We must believe the word of God as it has come to us through Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. Not just Scripture alone, but Scripture and Tradition.
For example, while there is reference to what Tradition speaks of as ‘natural law’, found in Scripture, the full connection between natural law and the commandments comes to us by way of Tradition. The Magisterium or Teaching Authority of the Church gives us the authoritative interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. That means that in order to understand and then obey the commandments of God we must listen to the men who have received authority from Christ to teach us those commandments. (cf. Mt 28:20)
Further, the word of God shows us that by nature we belong to various human communities (beginning with the family) and must obey the authorities that God has set over those communities, and that second, through baptism, we belong to the community of the Church, and so must obey the authority that God has set over his Church. (cf. Mt 18:17-18; 19:19, 22:21, Rm 13:1-2)
Let us make this concrete. It is the will of God that an employee obey his boss in everything that pertains to the ‘job description’, even if the boss is mean and even if the particular task is unpleasant. More than that, it is the will of God that the employee does the best job he possibly can, even if no one notices it. (cf. Eph 6:5-8; 1 Pe 2:18-19)
This is where it all gets complicated. We will not be able to get it right if we are not living a life of prayer, if besides living outwardly as members of the Church we do not also have an interior connection to Jesus Christ.
We instinctively rebel at the thought of having to obey, especially since we consider ourselves as ‘mature adults’, and part of the reason is that we think of obedience as something merely mechanical and robotic. That is because the concept of obedience has become separated from the concept of intelligence and truth. Commands are seen as nothing but arbitrary impingements upon our freedom.
Actually, obedience, real obedience, as a virtue that is pleasing to God requires both freedom and intelligence. Freedom, because we must not obey under compulsion, but as an act of understanding and love, because it is ‘just and right’. We must freely obey Jesus Christ, submitting ourselves to him in love, because he is our Lord, our God, and our Savior. Obedience is central to our living relationship with Jesus Christ.
Here are some of things we need to understand. These things will also keep us from being manipulated and exploited by those who abuse their authority.
First of all, only by way of obedience can we become part of a reality that is bigger than ourselves. We grasp this very well with sports teams that have coaches and captains. The biggest reality that we can and should belong to by way of obedience is the kingdom of God. St. Paul likens the Church to a living reality, the Body of Christ, in which each one of the faithful is a part, with a particular role to play. Only by way of obedience can we be integrated into and actively fulfill our role in the Body of Christ. (cf. Rm 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16; 1 Cor 12:12-31)
Next, there are some things that are commanded because they are right or forbidden because they are wrong. There are others that are right because they are commanded or wrong because they are forbidden.
For example, given that we have roads and automobiles, we need some way of organizing traffic. It makes sense to have traffic in one direction on one side of the road and traffic in the other direction on the other side. In most places the correct thing to do is to drive on the right side of the road; that is correct only because that is the law. It could just as well be the other way around; indeed, in Great Britain they drive on the left side of the road. Unfortunately, we very often see the commandments of God in this fashion.
Quite the contrary, the ten commandments, at least, command us to do things that are right and forbid us to do things that are wrong. Murder and adultery are forbidden because they are wrong. There is not an alternative universe in which they could be right. The Pope has no authority to tell us tomorrow that it is alright to kill innocent people or to commit adultery.
That leads us to the next point: only divine authority is absolute. All other authority is subordinate to God’s authority and so can only command within the scope given by God; that is why in the last analysis we must always obey God rather than man. (cf. Acts 4:19) Even when we obey a legitimate command of someone who is established in a legitimate position of authority, our obedience is more to God than to the man because the man’s authority ultimately comes from God.
So let us use the example of the authority of the Pope, who after Christ himself possesses supreme authority over the Catholic Church, both over the Church as a whole, all of its parts, and each one of the faithful. (cf. Vatican I, “Pastor Aeternus”, ch. 1-3)
While in certain circumstances he teaches infallibly, while ordinarily we should give him the benefit of the doubt, while we should not expect him to teach or command anything against faith and morals, nevertheless, his authority is limited.
In regards to teaching, the Pope does not have any authority to teach contrary to the teaching of Christ, handed on in Scripture and Tradition (cf. Vatican II, “Dei Verbum”, 10). If tomorrow the Pope declared that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, we would be obliged to reject his false teaching as evidently contrary to what has been handed down.
Nor does the Pope have any authority to teach anything contrary to the evident truth of the reason, which also comes from God. For example, if the Pope were to command us to believe that 2+2 equals five, we must continue to hold to the truth that 2+2=4.
Nor does the Pope have authority to command us to do anything contrary to the faith, contrary to the moral law, or even contrary to our own true good.
In all these cases, we must obey God, rather than man. It is not so much a matter of disobeying the lower authority, but of obeying the higher authority.
All of this also presupposes that God has given us minds and that we must make use of them. While we our first instinct must be to obey, while we must not, ultimately, rely on our private judgment, while we must be willing to accept correction, we also have the ability to grasp at least the basics of the world we live in, the teaching of Christ, and his law. Indeed, we learn these things from the Church herself, so if anyone within the Church, even the Pope, were to try to turn us against them, we must refuse.
As, St. Paul wrote, Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:8)
Peace is the tranquility of order; there is no order among free creatures without willing obedience; the supreme order is found in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. At his name every knee must bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God, the Father.