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SEPTEMBER 28, 2008: TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

After teaching Scripture as a Catholic priest for over 40 years, I'm convinced one of the reasons relatively few Catholics are turned on by Scripture springs from a disconnect between what the "official" church expects of us and what our sacred authors expect.

I grew up learning my only purpose in life was to get into heaven, and I was guaranteed this would happen if I obeyed all the rules and regulations the church set before me. As long as I did everything the hierarchy commanded, heaven was a cinch. Even when I brought up my fear that some priest might tell me to do something God didn't want me to do, my teachers assured me, "If that would ever happen, still do what he tells you. He'll go to hell for it, but you'll go to heaven for obeying him." You simply couldn't miss.

Then I began to study Scripture.

Those who gave us our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures certainly didn't seem to be as worried about getting into heaven as I was. Not even Jesus! Until about 100 years before Jesus' birth, people of faith didn't even have an insight into an afterlife as we have today. And though Jesus, as a Pharisee, believed in heaven, he never seems to make getting there the centerpiece of his itinerant preaching ministry. More important, none of our ancestors in the faith ever dreamt of a day when eternal happiness would be ours just because we carried out the commands of any human authority figure, even a religious one.

From today's gospel pericope it's clear the historical Jesus is concerned his followers do what God wants them to do. But he zeros in on his observation that many who tell the "Father" they'll do what he commands never carry through on their promise. On the other hand, some of those whom religious society brands as sinners are actually, in their own round-about way, doing what God wants.

When Jesus speaks about "tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom of God," he's not referring to their getting into heaven. Kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) is Jesus' way of speaking about God working in our lives right here and now. Jesus' earthly ministry revolves around experiencing God here, long before we experience God in eternity. Ironically, Jesus is convinced that sinners seem to be able to pull that off better than the "good folk." The story of the two sons demonstrates that he, like Ezekiel, believes people can change, switch their value systems and really live the life God offers them.

Paul tells the church in Philippi how they're to go about surfacing not just God, but the risen Jesus active in their lives. They can only do so by forming a close-knit, loving community. And they can only pull that off by imitating the dying/rising Jesus in their own lives.

The Apostle's passion for building community is clear. "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, united in love, united in heart, thinking one thing."

For Paul, there's just one way to accomplish this. "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus." Then, quoting a hymn which predates even his own ministry, he reminds his Philippians of the heart of Christian faith. Jesus "emptied himself. . . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." Only those who, like Jesus, make themselves the servants and slaves of others will be able to discover the risen Jesus in their midst.

Those who spend their lives building loving communities don't have to worry about going to heaven. They'll slide into eternity hardly noticing the change. It'll be an eternity they've prepared for all their lives.