Thus says the LORD:
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?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit
iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed,
he does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
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.
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also for those of others.
Have in you the same attitude
that is also in Christ 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,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus said to the
chief priests and elders of the people:
"What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.'
He said in reply, 'I will not, '
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, 'but did not go.
Which of the two did his father's will?"
They answered, "The first."
Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him."
A friend once mentioned, based on the gospel Jesus’ comment in Mark 2 that he came not to call the just but sinners, that only sinners can be Christians. Jesus didn’t come to save anyone who presumed she or he was already saved. No doubt that’s why conversion is brought up so frequently in the Christian Scriptures. For Jesus’ followers, there’s always a need and a chance to “repent,” to turn our value systems upside down. We never reach a point in our faith when we can start to coast, content just to be on an even keel. Faith implies we’re committing ourselves to a constant struggle.
The God whom Jesus of Nazareth preached isn’t a God who just carries snapshots of us in his/her billfold, glancing at them whenever we seek some divine help. “Primitive” people who won’t let tourists take their picture because they believe the process will kill them are correct. Photographs do kill us. They stop our lives at a specific time and place in history. Unless we’re masters of photo retouching, we’ll always be the same person we were the instant the camera snapped us. We can’t grow or change.
Thankfully God doesn’t have photos of us. God actually carries us, the living, evolving individuals he/she created. As long as we live, we can always repent; we can see people and things from a perspective we never before noticed and develop a new way of judging them.
Obviously that belief prompts Matthew’s Jesus to tell the two son’s story which triggers today’s gospel pericope about prostitutes and tax collectors “entering the kingdom of God” before the “righteous” even know such a kingdom exists. No matter what someone once decided to do, say or be, that person isn’t bound to defend that choice for the rest of his or her life. It’s embarrassing for the good folk to be told that society’s outcasts and sinners are better at repenting than they are.
More than 500 years before Jesus’ birth, Ezekiel proclaims a similar message. But the prophet emphases it’s a two-way street. Just as someone can turn from evil and embrace good, so someone can reject good and start down a path of evil. Value systems can always be switched – in either direction.
Paul’s Philippians passage seems to fit perfectly into today’s conversion theme. The Apostle begins by encouraging his readers to change the way they regard one another, urging them to be “. . . of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing,” eventually reaching a point in which they cease looking out for their own interests and begin to be concerned for the interests of others. But, for me, the interesting part of these verses comes when he uses Jesus as an example of such an “emptying” of self. Did this Galilean carpenter actually go through a conversion at some point of his earthly existence?
Most of us who buy into John the Evangelist’s theology that the historical Jesus was God from all eternity find this somewhat disturbing. We each have a holy card photo of a divine Jesus. But as we know from Romans 1, Paul seems to believe Jesus wasn’t God until God raised him from the dead. He was “a man like all of us except in sin.” Jesus also needed to experience a conversion. Some scholars contend his baptism by John in Mark 1 was actually triggered by that change in his value system.
We shouldn’t be discouraged when we find it difficult to change our life’s perspective. It might have taken Jesus of Nazareth about 30 years to change his! Certainly explains the length of his “hidden life” better than any other interpretation I’ve heard.