The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Ez 18:25-28 + Phil 2:1-11 + Mt 21:28-32
October 1, 2017
“Which of the two did his father’s will?”
Surely you’ve seen those license plate frames with little sayings on the top and bottom. I saw one that said: “Insanity is hereditary: you get it from your children.” We might say that the capacity to drive others insane is something we’re born with. The capacity for self-sacrifice, on the other hand, has to be acquired.
The capacity for self-sacrifice is the measure of authenticity in the Christian life. By contrast, the world around us encourages us to do what? The world that surrounds us encourages us to do what is contrary to the path Christ asks us to walk. Instead of choosing self-sacrifice, we choose self-glorification and self-gratification. Or in contrast to Christ’s path of self-sacrifice, we fudge a little bit: we make sacrifices, but not of our selves. We sacrifice things to which we have no attachment. We’re like the child on Ash Wednesday who proudly announces that he’s giving up spinach for Lent, or homework, or fighting with his sister.
Our children receive our attention regarding the discernment of their vocations, and rightly so. But our efforts will be of no avail if we don’t help our youth free themselves to accept whichever call God makes of them. In other words, putting knowledge about vocations into our young people’s minds is not enough. A vocation is also a matter of the will. Education in any subject requires a shaping not only of the intellect, but of both the intellect and the will. Any school that only gives knowledge about math, English, music, etc. is largely wasting its time. If a school doesn’t also give its students a love for those subjects, then the knowledge will likely evaporate after the final exam.
The same is true with the vocation that God has for each young person. It’s not enough for the young person to learn about what God wants. The young person also has to want what is learned. The young person has to want whatever God wants for him or her. But for a young person to be able to want whatever God wants, a change has to happen inside the young person.
A young person’s own fallen human will has to be purified like the biblical gold that’s tried in fire, so that what emerges is the capacity for self-sacrifice. This is the capacity described poetically by Saint Paul in our Second Reading, where he paints a portrait of self-sacrifice in the Flesh, in the person of 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… He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For sinners to grow in this capacity requires purification. Because while it’s true that each human being is conceived and born with free will, that free will is initially pointed in the wrong direction. Any parent of a two-year-old can tell you that the favorite word of a two-year-old is “No!” The child’s next favorite word is “Mine!” Unfortunately, self-will doesn’t disappear on a child’s third birthday. We human beings don’t spontaneously become more selfless as we grow older. Instead, we learn social skills that help us mask our selfishness. Giving up our selfishness is something that comes only with difficulty.
To accept a vocation in Christ is to recognize that my life is not “mine”, but “His”. To live a vocation in Christ is to say “Yes!” to God’s Will for me, not “No!” God our Father calls us to spend our earthly lives not like the first son in Jesus’ parable: saying “No” to the father’s will, and only later doing it. Nor does God will for us to be like the second, who’s all talk and no follow-through. To call God our Father means to be a child who always says “Yes” to Him, and who always puts the words that we mouth inside church into action during the week when we’re outside church and in the world.