The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection & Dialogue: Having a personal knowledge of Christ
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).
First Reading (Ezekiel 18:25-28). When the sinner renounces sin, he shall certainly live. This short passage is chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading for the reason that it treats of repentance and a change of mind in order to do the will of God, and treats also of God’s gift of forgiveness.
Although this brief reading has a specific aim in today’s Sunday celebration, it is worth considering the passage also in its original setting in the Book of Ezekiel, in which it is a very small text in a lengthy chapter (chapter 18) of thirty-three verses. This chapter of the book is devoted to a discussion of a very important topic in the development of biblical theology, namely collective punishment and personal responsibility. It is difficult to find appropriate words with which the express the principle of divine retribution on evildoing and God’s “visiting” the sins of one generation on another. It is, indeed, hard to find fitting words to put in God’s own mouth on this matter. The mental understanding and external expression of this matter are closely linked with the concepts of reality of the race and the individual. In different places in the Bible, representing earlier Semitic and biblical conceptions, Moses says to God (using language that was almost credal) that he was a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7). Generations after Moses’ time, especially in an age of more developed personal awareness and the trials of exile, the question was put how a just God could inflict punishment on a later generation for the sins of an earlier one. In the book of Ezekiel (18:2) and that of Jeremiah the problem is expressed in the form of a proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. The Lord replies to the problem and the proverb in this chapter. The proverb and what it stands for no longer hold. In fact a number of related questions are treated of by God in the chapter. Children and grandchildren will not be punished for the sins of their ancestors. The text goes beyond this, with treatment of personal responsibility. While personal sin will be punished, if sinners repent and turn to God they will be pardoned.
It is worth noting that this chapter has played a role in the Church’s understanding of her power to forgive sin. That she had such power from Christ is clear from the Gospels. What was not clear was what sins are intended – pre-baptismal sins at baptism or serious post-baptismal sins. When the matter became an issue the text of Ezekiel helped clarify the point.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 24). Remember your mercy, Lord.
Second Reading (Philippians 2:1-11). In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus. At the end of last Sunday’s second reading from this letter, Paul exhorted the Philippians to do nothing in their everyday lives that would be unworthy of the gospel of Christ. In his writings Paul stresses the imitation of Christ, and imitations himself in so far as he imitates Christ. The present reading gives many examples of what this implies. It is possible, and understandable, that that Christian community at Philippi, so dear to Paul, had its weaknesses. A little later in the letter (3:17-18), while exhorting them to imitate himself and to follow the example he has given them, he recalls that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ, as he had often told them, and tells them again in tears. He gives no further information as to who these were, but they were probably from within the community at Philippi. In today’s reading he exhorts the Phippians to live in keeping with the Gospel. He opens his exhortation by what appears to be a Trinitarian setting, with mention of encouragement in Christ, consolation from love (where by “love” the Father may be intended) and the communion or sharing in the Spirit. By the examples he gives, Paul illustrates what the new life for the followers of Christ is intended to be, a life illuminated by the light of Christ and of the gospel. It is to be a life of simplicity – no competition, no conceit, to be self-effacing, no boasting, looking after the interests of others rather than one’s own. It is to be an imitation of Christ, and in the second part of the reading the example of Christ is clearly put before them, in what appears to be an old hymn re-used by Paul for this purpose.
The hymn seems to contrast Christ the Second Adam with the first Adam in the Garden of Paradise. Adam, though human, in human form, succumbed to the temptation to be like God (Genesis 3:5), with the disaster for humanity that followed. Jesus, on the contrary, although “in the form of God”, although his state was divine, humbled himself, even to death on a cross. The glorification and the name bestowed on him is “Lord”. This simple term as applied to Christ is pregnant with meaning. The single word “Lord” means Jesus crucified, risen from the dead, at the right hand of the Father, and as glorified, who sends the Holy Spirit on the Church – all this “to the glory of God the Father”.
The Gospel (Matthew 21:28-32). He thought better of it and went. Tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. The setting for this reading is that Jesus is in Jerusalem in what will be the last week of his life on earth. He is no longer addressing the scribes and Pharisees as in Galilee, but rather the chief priests and the elders of the people, a group to be soon involved in the judgment that will lead to his death. There is but one answer that could be given to the example Jesus gave about the two sons asked by their father to go and work in his vineyard. The vineyard was a symbol of Israel, and the second son went in after a change of mind, after repentance, in this unlike the chief priests and the elders. The kingdom of God is for the repentant, even if marginalized, not for the unrepentant high and mighty.
- Reflection & Dialogue: Having a personal knowledge of Christ
In a poem in the Irish language, transmitted in folklore and in written tradition, in the course of an instruction to a young person beginning life’s course, among other matters the advice is given: “Before you grow too old, acquire a personal acquaintance with Christ”. There is not question of a knowledge about Christ, but knowledge of him, acquaintance with him. This agrees very much with what Paul has to say in his various letters, in that to the Philippians and others. It was part of the early Church’s catechetical preparation for baptism. It is put rather nicely in the Letter to the Ephesians, where the Old, pre-baptismal, Life as pagans is contrasted with the New Life in Christ, from baptism on. The Old Life is represented as having been alienated from the life of God, given to licentiousness and impurity. The Christian life is contrasted with this. They are told: “That is not the way you learned Christ” (Ephesians 4:18), for surely they had heard about him and were taught in him. They were to put away their old self and clothe themselves in the new self, in the true Christian existence in Christ. The teaching about Christ, and the baptism into Christ that accompanied it in the early Church, meant, and still means, a personal relationship with Christ. In a letter to the Colossians Paul directs the attention of the Christians to Christ enthroned in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, reminding them to pay attention to the things that are above. This, however, for him is not an escape from the realities of this life but a reminder to believers that they are to put to death all that is earthly, un-Christian, in themselves: impurity, passion, greed, and everything not in keeping with the Gospel. Christian life can be seen as the imitation of Christ, and all that flows from this. This imitation is no philosophical abstraction, but a living relationship with Christ, born of, and sustained by, faith and religious practice, prayer — an imitation that is in itself a free gift of God, to follow the path of his Son.