Soften our hearts, Lord

The Lord Is My Chef Sunday Recipe for the Soul by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Week XXVI-A in Ordinary Time, 27 September 2020
Ezekiel 18:25-28   |+|   Philippians 2:1-11   |+|   Matthew 21:28-32
Cross of San Damiano before which St. Francis of Assisi prayed and received Christ’s commission to rebuild His Church. Photo from wikipedia.org.

Brothers and sisters: If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others. Have in you the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:1-8

We priests and religious pray this beautiful hymn by St. Paul every Saturday evening. It is also proclaimed on Palm Sunday to show us Jesus Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis in Greek) to offer himself for our salvation. It is the most important text of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians that has played a vital role in the discussions of Christ’s preexistence.

Seen in the light of the gospel this Sunday, it is also part of St. Paul’s moral exhortation to the Philippians and us living today to be united as one in Jesus by following his pattern of kenosis that is similar with his teachings that “the first will be last, and the last will be first, that the greatest is the servant of all.”

It is the fundamental model of Christian life, the very essence of following Jesus by denying one’s self and taking up one’s cross but also the most difficult to learn and put into practice as it is exactly the opposite of the way of the world – “upward mobility” — of being rich and famous, of being in control that had divided us with massive walls of indifference, hate, and antagonisms making peace and joy more elusive.

Christ’s kenosis is the only way up in life to be back in God that leads us to unity, peace, and joy.

In this time of the pandemic when we are supposed to be more united and kind and nice with everyone, St. Paul’s call to imitate Jesus Christ’s kenosis is very timely and relevant, calling us to soften our hearts by emptying ourselves of our pride unlike the chief priests and elders of Israel to whom the Lord addressed his parable this Sunday.

Photo by author, wailing of Jerusalem, May 2017.

Our sense of entitlement

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

Matthew 21:28-31

Beginning today in three successive Sundays, Jesus teaches us again in parables to soften our hearts and let go of our pride that we are better than others, that we deserve more than what is due us like those early workers to the vineyard in last week’s gospel.

In a sense, today’s gospel tells us that there are too many works to be done in God’s kingdom that we have to keep going, imitating Jesus and be careful of falling into the same trap of those workers in last Sunday’s parable who felt entitled to more pay because they worked longer than others.

Notice how Jesus directly addresses his parables in these three Sundays to the same crowd of “chief priests and elders of the people” who have always felt favored by God for being of his “chosen people” since Abraham’s time. They always looked down at others specially the “tax collectors and prostitutes” considered as sinners.

They are not just people from the past who have lived during Christ’s time more than 2000 years ago. Even among us today, there are still chief priests and elders who continue to live and exist!

And here is the rub — among these people who may really be good in faithfully keeping the commandments of the Lord, praying and doing all kinds of devotions and charities are also the worst. Their religiosity are tied only to themselves and never to God, without any love at all.

Keep in mind that every time we feel entitled like the chief priests and elders of the people, it means our hearts have gone hard and cold like the elder son of the merciful father of the parable of the prodigal son or the early workers hired to the vineyard last week.

Photo by author, Mt. St. Paul Spirituality Center, La Trinidad, Benguet, March 2020.

So many times it happens that those who are supposed to be on higher moral grounds turn out to be without any roots and grounding in God at all, becoming harsh and judgmental of others, more sinful than the ones they condemn.

Like the chief priests and elders of the people in the crowd listening to Jesus, they start as the vida only to end up as the contravida like when there is a “black sheep” in the family or a “rotten tomato” in class, that instead of helping them rise from their sinfulness, they who are the ones who condemn and sink others deeper into their holes!

That is why God questions, stirs their hearts through the prophet in the first reading,

Thus says the Lord: You say, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?

Ezekiel 18:25

Always examine our hearts for we must all be converted again and again.

We must keep on praising and thanking God for his mercies like in our responsorial psalm this Sunday because he gives us all the chances in life to change and become better persons. Here we find a semblance with the gospel the other Sunday why we must forgive without limits because God’s love for us is infinite.

Actions, not intentions, judge us

Last Monday we celebrated the feast of St. Matthew, the tax collector called by Jesus to become one of his Twelve Apostles who also wrote one of the four gospels. It is very interesting to know that in all gospel accounts, tax collectors and prostitutes are always grouped together because they are the worst sinners at that time.

Tax collectors not only enriched themselves with excessive collections from the people but were seen as traitors who worked for the Roman colonizers of Israel at that time. Prostitutes, on the other hand, have always been considered very low because as women supposed to give birth for the awaited Messiah, they have “dirtied” their womb. Together, tax collectors and prostitutes were seen as the worst sinners in Israel because they have sold their souls to the devil; hence, they were considered beyond redemption, beyond hope, a scourge to their families and to the community that nobody would want to deal with them.

And so, it was very radical, out-of-this-world and totally unimaginable for everybody then when they heard Jesus telling them how “tax collectors and prostitutes” were entering the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders of the people who were considered very holy at that time!

It was a serious warning to them and us today from the Lord who reminds us that our actions judge us. The parable is an echo of his warning that “not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter heaven” (Mt.7:21). St. Matthew is very particular in his gospel account of the complete jibing together of what we say and what we do, of “walking the talk”.

We have so many sayings expressing this important lesson of today’s parable by the Lord like “A single act of good deed is always better than the grandest and best intention” and “Actions always speak louder than words.”

Photo by author, sunset in the parish, August 2020.

In this time of the pandemic when church attendance is limited and we are advised not to sing and reply aloud in the Mass, it is best that we examine how we have become mechanical in our celebrations without realizing the gravity of things we say like when we acclaim after the gospel proclamation “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!”: do we really work hard in his vineyard or are we like the other son who said yes but did not go? When at the end of the Mass we are told “Go in the peace of Jesus Christ” and we say, “Thanks be to God”, do we really go home at peace or still having that festering anger or dislike to someone?

Make your joy complete. Ask Jesus to soften your heart. Take a step backwards like the first son though at first he seemed so bad to disobey his father in refusing to follow his command, do not be ashamed to take back your words and do what is right.

Be careful not with your words but with your actions for which the Lord would judge us in the end.

Find solace in St. Paul’s beautiful hymn this Sunday: the lower we go down, the higher we are lifted up like Jesus. Nobody had ever gone wrong and lost in life going down, of being humble. Many men and women have gone to oblivion, lost and forgotten when their ivory towers collapsed, burying them in the rubble.

Have a blessed Sunday and week ahead!

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