“Leading the Way in Doing It God’s Way”
Homily, Mass for Celebration of Jubilarians in Religious Life
October 1, 2023, Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “A”
The passage from the book of the prophet Ezekiel that we just heard proclaimed in our first reading always calls to mind for me a memory that, even though it happened very many years ago, is still very vivid in my mind. It was when I was studying theology in the seminary and was on our annual retreat.
It was an Ignatian-style retreat, and at one point I was given this passage to meditate on. I still recall sitting in the chapel as I was reading these words and pondering them over and over in my mind: “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?” As I was repeating those words in my mind I looked up, and what was the first thing I saw when I raised my eyes from the pages in the Bible? A crucifix.
Change of Mind
That was a revelatory moment for me: you cannot look at a crucifix and think that God’s way is unfair. Even more so, it drives home just how unfair our own way is: it hit home to me very sharply just how self-centered we can be, thinking only of ourselves, our own woes and wants, oblivious to the effect we have on others. There can be no doubt that so many of the woes from which our society is suffering at this time are due to this widespread mindset of narcissism. In contrast, notice how Jesus speaks of a change of mind in the parable in today’s Gospel.
He mentions this twice in the parable, a sort of example and counter-example. The first example is the first son who initially says no to his father when asked by him to go out and work in the vineyard, but, as the text has it, “afterwards changed his mind and went.” And then there are the “chief priests and elders of the people” (to whom he addresses the parable) who did not believe John the Baptist, and when they saw that sinners did believe him and changed their way of life, even then they did not “later change their minds and believe him.”
The Greek word used in this text is very indicative: metaméllomai is a compound word consisting of metá, which conveys the meaning of change after being with, and mélō, which means to care, or to be concerned with. Put together, the proper sense of the word is “to experience a change of concern after a change of emotion and usually implying … regret, i.e. falling into emotional remorse afterwards.” The careful wording of the parable as told by our Lord and recorded by St. Matthew very subtly introduces this sense of change (or lack thereof) after an experience: the first son “afterwards changed his mind” and the chief priests and elders “did not later change their minds.”
The qualification with the word metá gives the proper sense of “in the midst of, amid, denoting association, union, accompaniment.” This is accompaniment, though, in a different sense than that to which we are accustomed. Here it means emotions that accompany an experience: a powerful, transformative emotional experience giving rise to a realization of regret and remorse that then leads to repentance and a consequent change of mindset and behavior. Moreover, wherever this word occurs in the New Testament it always regards change in a positive direction, a correction of course. For example, it is the word used with regard to Judas when he regretted that he had betrayed his Lord and given the thirty pieces of silver to the leaders of the people (but of course, because of his despair of God’s mercy, it did not end well for him). In the case of today’s parable, the first son did change course in a positive direction, but the chief priests and elders did not.
If we look more closely at the text, and elsewhere in the New Testament, we can see further that there are two senses, or levels, that this change of mind can take. First of all, there is change in a fundamental way, a complete turnaround, renouncing a sinful, self-destructive way of life in order to follow the path of our Lord. This is the case of the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who believed John the Baptist, who had come “in the way of righteousness.” This, though, is not the same sense, or degree, in the case of the first son with his change of mind.
Notice how the first son in this parable contrasts with the example of the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the younger son disowns his father. The effect of taking his inheritance while his father is still alive is that the father is now dead to the son. In this case, the son’s “coming to his senses” (as it is phrased in Luke’s Gospel) constitutes a complete turnaround in life, a fundamental re-orientation. In today’s parable, though, the first son remains a son, he bears no ill will toward his father, let alone disowns him; but he later realizes that he offended his father, he failed to love him as a loyal son should. Going out into the vineyard and doing his father’s will helps move the son further down the path of self-perfection in his love and filial loyalty toward his father.
Nowadays, would call these two experiences of change “initial conversion” and “ongoing conversion.” Either way, the change of mind, heart and behavior can only be lived out in our relationships, most especially in the natural family (as is the case in today’s parable) and in the family of faith, that is to say, the community of believers. This latter meaning is the point of St. Paul’s teaching in his letter to the Philippians, where he exhorts them to be “of the same mind” and “united in heart,” telling them not to do anything “out of selfishness or out of vainglory” but rather to “humbly regard others as more important than [them]selves,” with “each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”
This is the way of Christ, the Christian way, which conforms us to Christ and so leads to eternal life with him; but not only that, it also helps to build up his Kingdom here on earth, healing the innumerable woes we are suffering here below and making this world a better reflection of his Kingdom of Heaven – which is why it is for every vocation. That, after all, is the point of having a vocation, and why God gives a specific, personal vocation to each one of us: to force us into the discipline that forms us into a true Christian who lives and loves as Christ teaches, and as described by St. Paul – looking to others’ interests before our own, seeking unity in mind and heart.
In the Vocation of Consecrated Life
This very point was underscored by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, Mystici Corporis, where he says that “[i]t is the will of Jesus Christ that the whole body of the Church, no less than the individual members, should resemble Him.” But he goes on to add something that is very pertinent to what we are about today:
When [the Church] embraces the evangelical counsels she reflects the Redeemer’s poverty, obedience and virginal purity. Adorned with institutes of many different kinds as with so many precious jewels, she represents Christ deep in prayer on the mountain, or preaching to the people, or healing the sick and wounded and bringing sinners back to the path of virtue – in a word, doing good to all.
These words certainly have resonances with the meaning of religious life. He says that the whole Church, corporately, “embraces the evangelical counsels,” but those who publicly consecrate their entire lives to these counsels visibly manifest to the whole Church what it means to follow Christ by imitating him in his poverty, obedience and chaste purity. And this public, visible manifestation is expressed through a splendid diversity of charisms embodied by those “institutes” (of consecrated life) that adorn the Church “as with so many precious jewels.” Among these are especially those religious consecrated in the contemplative vocation, representing “Christ deep in prayer on the mountain,” as well as those in the active religious life who dedicate their entire lives to “doing good to all” through preaching and teaching, offering health care for the healing of mind and body, and bringing those who are far from Christ to an initial conversion that sets them on the path of virtue and fullness of life in him.
They do this by living their consecration in community, which is the way in which they respond to that constant call to ongoing conversion. And community life gives them plenty of opportunity to do so! By taking advantage of those opportunities, religious strive to heed Paul’s admonitions to his fellow Christians in the ancient city of Philippi, and show how following the path of virtue creates a community that better reflects Christ’s Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. They thus provide a living lesson to all of us that, as patristic thought has it, if we try to outdo each other in charity, our lives will resemble that of the angels in heaven.
It seems we have to keep relearning the lesson that it is God’s way that is the best way, not our own. God’s way is the way of love, as He created love to be, love which took on human flesh when His Son came into our world, and brought to its completion in his death on the Cross, in which he, our Creator, humbly regarded us, his creation, as more important than himself, looking out for our own interests, indeed, the only thing of interest that really matters: eternal life with him in his Kingdom of Heaven.
On this day we thank him for the gift of our sisters and brothers who have embraced the call of religious consecration to the evangelical counsels and so model for us the wisdom of God’s way, a way that is so very different from our own. We pray that many young people will take inspiration from their example and embrace this extraordinary vocation for their own sanctification and that of the entire Church. In this spirit of gratitude, then, I now ask our jubilarians in religious life to come forward and stand before the altar to renew your vows of consecration.
 MC, n. 47.