26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Ezekiel 18:25-28
Psalm 25:4-9
Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 21:28-32

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind, and that is the reason we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The way to Salvation through Repentance and Humility
Today's readings invite us to think about the unfathomable ways of God's justice and mercy.  The First Reading takes up the topic of personal accountability, the consequences of sin, and God's mercy to the repentant sinner.  The prophet Ezekiel asks the question: "If the sinner must live with the consequences of his sins, what is the purpose of repentance?"  The answer includes one of the most beautiful summaries of divine mercy in Scripture.  God gives the assurance that He is always ready to forgive the sinner who humbly repents, turns away from his sins, and restores his fellowship with God.  In His mercy, God even promises not to remember the transgressions which the sinner committed and repented (Ez 18:22).

Sin separates us from God, even the sins of a person who has formerly lived a virtuous life.  The Responsorial Psalm says God teaches His ways only to the humble.  It is those with humble hearts who are opened to God's corrections and seek His forgiveness.  Everyone who sins has the promise of forgiveness in repenting those sins and humbly calling upon God's mercy. 

In the Second Reading, St. Paul presents Jesus as the model of the humility by which we can come to truly know God and find the path that leads to our salvation.  Paul's appeal to Christian humility and obedience focuses on Jesus' humility and self-offering that was demonstrated in His obedience unto death for the sake of our salvation.

Sometimes it is human pride that prevents repentance, as in the case of the chief priests and elders to whom Jesus addressed His parable in the Gospel Reading.  Their failure to humble themselves prevented them from acknowledging Jesus' Messiahship and His invitation to eternal salvation.  We should all heed the same warning.  In the obedience of faith, we must humbly submit ourselves to Jesus Christ and His Gospel of salvation.  We must not allow pride to harden our hearts so that we fail humbly come to repentance in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or close our ears to understanding the message of the Living Word, like the proud and hard-hearted chief priests and elders.  It is a humble and contrite spirit that pleases the Lord and provides a sure path to follow on the journey to eternal salvation

The First Reading Ezekiel 18:25-28 ~ Virtue and Repentance
25 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?  26 When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.  27 But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; 28 since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

Our First Reading is from a passage in which the 6th century BC prophet Ezekiel takes up the question: "If the sinner must live with the consequences of his sins, what is the purpose of repentance?"  The answer includes one of the most beautiful summaries of divine mercy in Scripture in which  God promises His merciful forgiveness of one's sins and restoration to fellowship with Him through the repentance of a humbled spirit (Ez 18:21-24).

To those Israelites who complained that God was not just in harshly judging the sins of a formerly virtuous person, God replies through His prophet that it is rather the sinful ways of the Israelites that are unfair (verse 25).  The punishment the Israelites suffered was because of their personal, unrepentant sins and the people's collective sins that led to God's just condemnation (verse 26).  And yet, as God's prophet assures the people in verse 27, God in His mercy is always ready to forgive the sinner who repents, turns away from his sins, and turns back to God (verse 28).  In His mercy, God even promised not to remember of the transgressions which the sinner committed and repented, nor will God hold those repented sins against him: None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced (Ez 18:22).

God's forgiveness is uniquely tied to personal repentance, contrition, and conversion (turning back to God) in the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Penance.  The Council of Trent quoted this passage from Ezekiel and related verses concerning the Sacrament of Penance:

Responsorial Psalm 25:4-9 ~ God's Compassion for the Humble
The response is: "Remember your mercies, O Lord."

4 Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, 5 guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.
Response:
6 Remember that your compassion, O LORD, and your love are from old.  7 The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not; in your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O LORD.
Response:
8 Good and upright is the LORD; thus he shows sinners the way.  9 He guides the humble to justice, he teaches the humble his way.
Response:

In this psalm attributed to David, the psalmist cries out to God, reminding Him of the just man who fears offending the Lord.  In verses 4-5, the psalmist asks the Lord God to instruct him in His ways, acknowledging that it is from God that salvation comes.  He asks God, in His compassion for sinners, to demonstrate His love, kindness, and goodness by forgiving him for his sins (verses 6-7).  He praises the Lord who, in His divine goodness, shows sinners "the way" (verse 8).  

In Scripture "the way" is the path to salvation through obedience to the commandments of the Lord (Dt 30:15-16).  God guides both the sinner and the humble, dispensing His justice to both.  It is the humble sinner who acknowledges his sin to the Lord and receives God's forgiveness.  Jesus Christ fulfills the psalmist's petition for forgiveness and restoration.  He is the righteousness One who is for the humble sinner "the Way" to salvation; as Jesus said: I am the way and the truth and the life (Jn 14:6a).

The Second Reading Philippians 2:1-11 ~ The Humility of Christ
1 If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.  3 Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, 4 each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.  5 Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, 6 Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. 
7 Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, 8 he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  9 Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

St. Paul writes this letter to the church at Philippi, Greece from his imprisonment in Rome (Phil 1:12-14).  In our passage, he begins by urging Christian unity (verses 1-5).  The "one thing" we should think about (verse 2) is the unity based on the Christian community's threefold experience with the Holy Trinity: Christ's gift of salvation, God the Father's love, and the Holy Spirit's guidance (verse 1).  Paul's appeal to Christian humility in verse 3 (and obedience later in verse 12) is rooted in what appears to be an ancient Christian hymn in verses 6-11.  The hymn focuses on Jesus' humility and self-offering demonstrated in His obedience unto death (verse 8).  The short hymn, which rhymes in the original Greek, is divided into two parts:

6 Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. 
This verse is either a reference to Jesus' preexistence and the aspects of His divinity that He was willing to give up to complete God's divine plan in human form or to what the man Jesus, in His humanity refused to grasp in His divinity.  Many Biblical scholars, both ancient and modern, see an allusion to the story of Adam in the Book of Genesis.  Unlike Adam, Jesus, the "second Adam," though in the form of God (made in God's image = Gen 1:26-27), did not reach out for equality with God, in contrast with the first Adam who was tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit so that your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (Gen 3:5-6).

7 Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, 8 he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 
Instead of coming in His divine glory, He divested Himself of His glory to come humbly as a fully human man.  His willingness to give up His life on the altar of the Cross manifested His obedience to the will of God.

9 Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Verse 11 reveals the "name" in verse 9 as "Lord."  It is a "name" (Kyrios) that reveals His divine nature.  In Greek translations of the Old Testament, the word Kyrios/Lord was a substitute for God's Divine Name, YHWH (Yahweh).  Verses 10-11 are reminiscent of Isaiah 45:23b ~ To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear...  It is for this reason that we genuflect before the image of Christ and before His presence in the Tabernacle. 

In the allusion to the Isaiah passage in verse 11, there is a reference to the three levels of the cosmos according to ancient thought: heaven, earth, and under the earth.  "Under the earth" refers to Sheol (Hades in the Greek), the abode of the dead to which the righteous and the wicked went after their individual judgment under the old covenants.  The righteous awaited the coming of the Redeemer-Messiah in the banquet of the just while the sinners were punished for their sins and purified by the fiery love of God in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus descended to the dead, preached the Gospel of salvation, and then liberated the dead from the prison of the grave (1 Pt 3:18-20; 4:6; Apostles' Creed; CCC 632-33).  Sheol continues as a place of purification that we call Purgatory (1 Cor 3:13-15) and will only cease to exist at the end of time in the Last Judgment when further purification is no longer necessary (Rev 20:13-15).  Paul's point is that God the Son has sovereign authority over all creation.

11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This verse is the final doxology which declares that "Jesus Christ is Lord."  It is an early Christian acclamation that may have been called out in the liturgy of worship in proclaiming the divinity of God the Son (Paul uses the same acclamation in Romans 10:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:3).  The doxology concludes in giving praise and glory to God the Father who exalted God the Son and raised Him to glory.

The Gospel of Matthew 21:28-32 ~ The Parable of the Two Sons
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: 28 "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.'  29 He said in reply, 'I will not,' but afterwards he changed his mind and went.  30 The man came to the other son and gave the same order.  He said in reply, 'Yes, sir,' but did not go.  31 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.  32 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."

The chief priests and elders stood in opposition to Jesus' mission to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God and the gift of eternal salvation.  They were the leaders of the covenant people.   The chief priests were members of the ordained priesthood who were the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses and the first High Priest of Israel.  The elders were the civil leaders who were part of the ruling hierarchy of the Old Covenant Church and represented the people in the Sanhedrin, the High Court of the covenant people (Ex 24:1-2, 9-11; Num 11:16-17). 

Jesus told the religious and civil authorities they failed to recognize St. John the Baptist as a righteous prophet of God by his works (verse 32) just as they have failed to recognize Him.  He used a parable to demonstrate the spiritual consequences of their failure and to teach them the meaning of obedience in serving the will of God as communicated by God's divinely appointed agents.  In His parable, Jesus uses one of the four reoccurring symbolic images of the Old Testament prophets: the vineyard (see the chart on the Symbolic Images of the Old Testament Prophets).  As a symbolic image of Israel, the Old Testament prophets used the vineyard or the fig tree to represent four stages of Israel's relationship with God: covenant union with God, Israel in rebellion against God, Israel under divine judgment that was meant to bring about repentance and restoration, and Israel fully restored to God.  The Old Testament prophets never acknowledge a full restoration for the covenant people; it is only promised in the future.  Full restoration only comes through God's supreme prophet, Jesus Christ.

THE SYMBOLIC IMAGE OF THE VINEYARD OR FIG TREE
Image Group Part I
Covenant relationship
Part II
Rebellion
Part III
Redemptive Judgment
Part IV
Restoration
Fulfilled
The Vineyard
or
Fig tree
Well-tended vineyard/fruitful fig tree Vines grow wild/failure to produce fruit Weeds overgrow vineyard/ ruin and destruction Vines are replanted/
fruitfulness restored
[examples in Scripture] Isaiah 5:1-4;
Ezekiel 19:10-11;
Jeremiah 24:4-7
Jeremiah 2:21;
Hosea 2:14;
Micah 7:1-4;
Joel 1:7, 11-12
Isaiah 5:3-6;
Ezekiel 19:12-14;
Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-10;
Nahum 3:12-15
John 15:1-8
Jesus said: "I am the true vine... I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit ..."

Jesus also used the "vineyard" imagery previously in the parable in Matthew 20:1-16.

The vineyard and the people in Jesus' parable have symbolic significance:

  1. The vineyard is Israel/Judea: the Old Covenant Church.
  2. God is the father.
  3. The first son who refused and then later served the father in the vineyard represents the tax collectors and sinners.  They are the religious outcasts who at first refused to serve God but then answered St. John's call to repentance.  They have come to Jesus to embrace His Gospel message of salvation and to serve God the Son.
  4. The second son who said "yes" but then did not serve represents the chief priests, elders, Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees.  They are the failed shepherds of Israel and who serve themselves but do not serve God's divine plan.

31 Which of the two did his father's will?  They answered, "The first."
To Jesus' question in verse 31: Which of the two did his father's will?, the chief priests and elders correctly answered: "The first."  In their answer, the people's leaders have condemned themselves, and Jesus pronounces His judgment upon them, saying: "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.  32 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."

These men, in their pride and hardness of heart, presumed their superiority over sinners who they dismissed as unworthy of salvation.  In their lack of humility, they believed they had no further need to hear God's Word to be obedient to the will of God.  They have fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah concerning those who refuse to listen to God's holy prophets: You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see.  Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, least they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted and I heal them (Is 6:9-10 LXX).  St. Matthew quotes this passage as a fulfillment statement in Matthew 13:14-15 concerning the very same men who are leaders of the Old Covenant Church but who have rejected Jesus' authority to heal and teach the Gospel of salvation.

We should all heed the same warning.  We must be open to the call of Jesus' Gospel of salvation.  We must not allow pride to harden our hearts so that we fail to submit ourselves to humble repentance in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Nor should we close our ears to understanding the message of the Living Word, Jesus Christ, like the proud chief priests and elders.  It is a humble and contrite spirit that pleases the Lord and provides a sure path to follow on the journey to salvation: Offer praise as your sacrifice to God; fulfill your vows to the Most High.  Then call on me in time of distress; I will rescue you, and you shall honor me (Ps 50:14-15).

Catechism References:
Ezekiel 18:25-28 (CCC 1421, 1446, 1468, 1470, 2043)
Philippians 2:1 (CCC 2842); 2:4 (CCC 2635); 2:5-8 (CCC 461); 2:5 (CCC 520, 1694, 2842); 2:6-11 (CCC 2641, 2667); 2:6-9 (CCC 1850); 2:6 (CCC 449); 2:7 (CCC 472, 602, 705, 713, 876, 1224); 2:8-9 (CCC 908); 2:8 (CCC 411, 612, 623); 2:9-11 (CCC 449, 2812); 2:9-10 (CCC 434); 2:10-11 (CCC 201); 2:10 (633, 635)
Matthew 21:28-32 (CCC 546); 21:18 (CCC 544); 21:22 (CCC 2610); 21:32 (CCC 535)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017, www.AgapeBibleStudy.com