Deacon Cornell's Homily


Ezekiel 18:25-28
Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 21:28-32


September 27-28, 2008 Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

I wonder how Jesus fits into this parable when he was twelve at the temple. Like the second son, did he tell St. Joseph that he was coming home with them and then go off to the temple? Or like the first son did he tell his Heavenly Father that he was going home with Mary andn Joseph and then decide that he should do what He had asked him to do? It is a bit more complicated with one son and two fathers.

In any case, Jesus tells this parable along with two others that we will hear over the next two weeks in response to the priests and scribes challenging his authority to teach as he did. In that context it is easy to see this parable simply as a comment on Israel's failure to live out the covenant they had made with God, and therefore not something that has any direct bearing on us. But, of course, we would not be so shallow, would we.

So what does this parable say to us. On one level, it is a story that makes the important point that actions speak louder than words. But, given the context of this parable in Matthew's gospel, it has a much more probing meaning. Throughout the gospels, and certainly here, Jesus does not criticize the leaders for their action or lack of action. In most cases, the Pharisees and the scribes are not doing bad things or failing to do good things. They are praying, and fasting, and offering sacrifices in the temple in accordance with Jewish law. What he criticizes most often is their attitude or understanding of what they are doing. He challenges them to act out of love, guided by the law, instead of just blindly following the letter of the law. Love compels us to do things more fully as opposed to rules which tempt us to do the minimum possible.

Let's look at just one area of what our Father has asked us to do as Catholics to see how this applies in particular to us: The Sunday Obligation. Most people understand the first precept of the Church to mean we have to attend mass each Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation. There is more to it than that, like refraining from unnecessary work, but let's just consider the obligation to attend mass.

Like the second son in the parable, the majority of self-identified Catholics (around 75% nationwide) say, sure I am Catholic but then do not carry out this request to attend mass each week. Like any child who decides not to carry out a parent's request, I would guess that most of those who call themselves Catholic but do not attend mass regularly have convinced themselves that the request was not really meant to be binding or they feel that the parent making the request won't really mind if it is not carried out. Various polls show that some Catholics think that the Sunday Obligation precept has been repealed or it doesn't apply to everyone. I would suggest that a large number of Catholics used to go to church because they were afraid of going to hell if they didn't and now they think that hell went out of business several decades ago (couldn't afford the balloon payment on the mortgage) and so they are not worried about that any more.

Well now we have dealt with those people. Too bad they weren't here today to reflect on this parable. And what about us who do come to mass regularly? Does this parable have anything to say to us? It does because like the Sunday Obligation and all the commandments, this parable is about love, rather than actions. Ultimately we are "obligated" to go to Mass because love requires it. It is not about actions speaking louder than words as much as it is that loving actions flow naturally from love in the heart.

I know it comes as a big shock to all of you here but there are some Catholics, adults as well as children, that ask, "Why do I have to go to mass?" Assuming that this question comes from the heart, we have to start the answer by saying what mass really is. As with any mystery, there are a lot of ways to understand the mass but I would like to focus on just two. First, the Mass is a way of saying thank you to God for all the wonderful things God has bestowed on us: from the very life we have to all the amazing things we take for granted like food, and clothing and shelter and families, to the gift of Christ, God become human to save the world. Someone who had been given so many gifts and doesn't give thanks is either blind to the gifts, or just plain ill-mannered. Oh but I can say thanks to God anywhere; I don't need to come to Mass. Hmm - that's kind of like trying to text thanks to your great grandmother who might have a cell phone but would really rather you sent a little handwritten note. God has made it real clear through his Church that this is the best way to say thanks.

Secondly celebrating the Eucharist is about joining ourselves more closely to the Body of Christ. This means encountering Jesus in the most intimate way we can encounter another person, and then becoming Christ so that others may encounter him as well. When you love someone, you are compelled by that love to see them, to hug them, to be with them. Betsy and I are heading out to San Diego on Tuesday to see my son Matt and his wife Mariel and my 6 and 18 month old grandsons: Dexter and Chase. They moved out there in July and we have video chatted with them every few days since but let me tell you, it would take a few big guys with bats to keep me off that plane and from going there so I can hug them and kiss them and just be in the same room with them. I can video chat with them from anywhere in the world that has a connection to the internet. For love, that is not enough.

The same is true for coming to mass. Sure we can talk to God anywhere. We can be "good" people without coming to mass. But that is not what love compels us to do. Our God has come into the world so that we can know how good it is to be loved by this God. And our Father asks us to spread that good news by becoming the Body of Christ here and now so that others can know how good that is. We don't have to go 3,000 miles away to be with this God who loves us. How can we say we are Catholics if we don't feel compelled by this love to give thanks and to encounter God in the way God has revealed is the best way?

As Paul relates in that hymn from Philippians, God did not become human and die for us because of a rule, or because there was anything in it for him. He was compelled to do it because that is how love works. The obligations, the commandment, the requirements of love impel us towards the one we love. Brothers and sisters: If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Act out of love which compels us to do the most we can.


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