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SEPTEMBER 25, 2011: TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

Conversion is at the heart of biblical faith.

Many of us were formed in a catechism environment in which knowledge was highly valued. The one change our teachers expected of us was to know more this year about our faith than we knew last year. After all, this year's catechism was always thicker than last year's.

Our sacred authors certainly never put down intellectual knowledge, but when they speak about "knowing" anyone or anything, they presume we have much more than just a book knowledge of the person or thing. As Semites, they took for granted you only truly know what you've experienced.

That's why, when they speak about knowing God, they frequently bring up conversion. To know anyone implies you somehow understand his or her value system. Though you might not buy into it, you can at least appreciate how it explains that individual's actions and personality.

The biblical kicker is that our sacred authors presume we should not only appreciate God's value system, we should actually make it part of our own personality. They were convinced that ongoing conversion must be an essential element in our following of God.

More than 500 years before Jesus' birth, Yahweh demands that Ezekiel be committed to the possibility of conversion in those exiled Israelites to whom he prophesied. Though they, like some of us, are quite comfortable locking people into certain behavior patterns, there's always an opportunity to change even if we judge God "unfair" for providing that opportunity.

The interesting point of this particular pericope is that Yahweh permits someone to change in either direction: to become more or less like God. Conversion isn't just a one way street.

In perhaps the best-known passage in all of Scripture, Paul insists his community in Philippi acquire "the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus." He's concerned that his recent converts will fall into the trap of "solipsism." Because their relationship with the risen Jesus has made them much more aware of their importance and dignity, the Apostle is worried they'll begin to make their needs and desires the norm instead of acknowledging and caring for the needs and desires of others.

As other Christs, Paul expects the Philippians to be "of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, looking out not for your own interests, but also for those of others."

The person, of course, who best exemplifies such a self-giving value system is Jesus. His lifestyle was the exact opposite of solipsism. Instead of making himself the norm, Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ... He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." That's the attitude - the value system - of Christ Jesus.

The gospel Jesus presumes the conversion to such an outgoing frame of mind doesn't happen instantly, nor does it develop without lots of relapses. That seems to be why he has no problem associating with sinners. They seem to be the one group most willing to change and convert. Like the first son, they think over their original refusal to do the father's will. Jesus holds out hope that they, unlike the "good folk," will eventually convert enough to enter "the kingdom of God:" to experience God working in everything they do.

Perhaps our religion teachers should have given the best grades not to those who knew a lot, but to those who changed their value systems a lot.