Christ's "self-emptying" the norm for every disciple
(Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32)
Introduction to Mass
In the Old Testament period the prophets in particular were always appealing to the Chosen People to renounce their sinful inclinations and choose honesty and integrity instead - as the prophet Ezekiel says in the first reading today.
The other readings this Sunday refer to the even higher standard revealed by Christ: the surrendering of our own interests involved in adopting the love that marks God's character - which is what Christ's image of the Kingdom was all about.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass worthily...
The first reading this Sunday finds the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel trying to promote the qualities of honesty and integrity among his fellow believers, which he does by drawing a stark contrast between two basic moral attitudes or two basic choices we can make about the moral direction of our lives.
One attitude involves a commitment to integrity, the quality of consistent moral goodness running through our whole character, which leads us into closer communion with God. The other attitude turns away from the demands of integrity, refuses to move beyond a self-serving outlook on life, and therefore closes us off from God.
Along with the other prophets and many of the authors of the books of the Bible, Ezekiel had a passionate sense that our glory as human beings lies in our capacity for goodness and truth and love. These are the qualities that raise us up and help us realise the spiritual potential we’re capable of. But the biblical authors also saw quite vividly that we’ve got to consciously choose the way of integrity.
We can refuse to raise our moral sights beyond our own self-interest, we can collude with all the lower instincts of human nature - greed, jealousy, violence, seeing other people as objects rather than persons and exploiting them - or we can resist those tendencies and make a deliberate effort to cultivate the virtues that lift us above the level of basic appetites and instincts.
The authors of the Bible often described this choice as a contrast between spiritual vision and blindness; between light and darkness; or, as in Ezekiel's image, between life and death. When someone renounces sin in favour of an overall integrity, says Ezekiel, he's opting for spiritual health and vitality - "life". But when an upright man renounces his integrity and commits sin, he's choosing spiritual death.
In the gospel reading Jesus draws a contrast of his own. He criticises the respectable religious people who do a lot of talking about their devotion to God but don't in any practical way adopt the attitudes and values and behaviour God wants to see. On the other side he applauds the "tax collectors and prostitutes" for responding positively to John the Baptist's preaching and changing the direction of their lives.
In other words, in spite of the accepted notions about what constitutes piety and righteousness, and in spite of their high opinion of their own spiritual loftiness, it's the recognised religious people who are rejected by God. Whereas many individuals who previously were far from being holy or upright in any conventional sense have turned and started to practice the values that enhance our spiritual nature and bring us into communion with God.
Obviously from their own point of view it was grossly offensive for Jesus to tell the chief priests and elders that well-known groups of religious outcasts had understood and responded to the genuine wishes of God more faithfully than they had.
But his aim in confronting people like that wasn't to offend their pride. His aim was to always to jolt people into reviewing their position in the hope that they would genuinely repent and make the basic choice of integrity. In the sense that Jesus was laying the foundations of a new community of faith in God, he wanted to bring as many people as possible into the new community - including the leaders of the old religion, if they could acknowledge their faults and sins.
Finally this idea of Christ laying the foundations of a new community leads us onto the advice that St. Paul offers in the second reading.
Paul's letters were written only shortly after Jesus' death and resurrection while the first followers of Christ were still in the process of building the new community of the Church, and still trying to work out the rules or principles that should govern the social life of the community.
In the lines quotes in the second reading today Paul offers his advice by quoting a hymn which was popular in the early Christian churches.
Christ was divine, the hymn went, an equal with God the Father. But Christ "emptied himself", voluntarily diminished himself, gave up his equality with God and took on the poverty and lowliness of the human condition. More than that, he accepted the humiliation of a criminal execution - all to fulfil his mission of revealing God's nature more fully to us, and especially the self-sacrificing love which is the heart of God's nature.
St. Paul quotes the hymn because his basic advice to the members of the Christian community is, as he says here, "in your minds you must be the same as Christ". Every individual who becomes a disciple of Jesus should be prepared to imitate Christ's willingness to "empty himself", should be ready to adopt the same attitude of humility and surrendering of superior status.
The implication for the life of the whole Christian community, Paul goes on to say, is that "there must be no competition among you, no conceit...everybody is to be self-effacing". The members of the church community should relate to each other in a way that mirrors Jesus' "self-emptying": "Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people's interests instead". If everyone observes that standard, Paul is saying, the whole community will take on a Christ-like identity and character.
Nothing could be more different from the aggressive, competitive, pressured atmosphere we've become used to in our society today, where people often feel that they can't afford to relax for a second in case some one else jumps in and takes their place in the queue.
But in many ways the position of Christians today is similar to that of Christ's first followers, because at the time Paul was writing the new Church communities made up a small, insignificant, often ridiculed minority which held very different values from those of mainstream society. Like Ezekiel they believed that living a fully human life meant aiming high, morally and spiritually, and not being content with the lowest common denominator.
So it may be that a proper understanding of Paul’s advice only comes to us after a lot of prayer and reflection and the gradual deepening of our faith that comes through those activities. Certainly it won’t make much sense to someone who has only skinned the surface of the gospel message. But these are perhaps some of the lessons we can bear in mind, or some of the goals we can aim for, as we try to work out the implications of living the gospel message in our own daily circumstances.