September 25, 2005: TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
One of the most consoling, yet difficult realities to deal with in living lives of faith is that we humans are always capable of changing. Our biblical authors often reflect on this troubling possibility.
More than 500 years before Jesus’ birth, Ezekiel proclaims Yahweh’s take on the subject. “When a virtuous person turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But, if a wicked person, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life . . . , he shall not die.” God gives us an opportunity we rarely give to one another: the freedom to become someone new, whether good or evil.
Matthew’s Jesus falls back on that belief in defending his habit of hanging with sinners. In his example, the elder son says, “I am on my way!” when his father asks him to work in the vineyard, but he never goes. Meanwhile, the second son who originally replies, “No I will not!” when asked to do the same, later thinks better of it and goes off to work for his father. If the historical Jesus didn’t believe in the possibility of change, he would have dumped his ministry of repentance before it ever began.
Is it possible that Jesus was certain of the possibility of change not because he read about it in some philosophy book or heard it in the Scriptures proclaimed during synagogue services, but because he had already experienced such a transformation in his own life?
Because of our traditional emphasis on Jesus’ divinity, we feel uncomfortable delving into his humanity. Yet Jesus’ human dimension is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews is reflecting on when he makes the famous observation, “We do not have a high priest (Jesus) who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” (4:15)
With this in mind, could we be interpreting Paul’s well-known Philippians hymn about Jesus’ emptying of himself in a way Paul never intended?
We usually hear the words of our second reading against the background of the first chapter of John’s gospel; the prologue in which the evangelist speaks about Jesus’ pre-existence as God. “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1) With John’s theology in mind, we reason that when Paul says Jesus “. . . emptied himself, and took the form of a slave . . .” he was referring to his coming to earth from heaven and becoming human. We forget that Paul wrote Philippians almost 40 years before John developed his particular pre-existence theology.
Is it possible that Paul was thinking, as we did last week, about Genesis 1 instead of John 1? If so, when Paul speaks about Jesus being “in the form of God” and “regarding equality with God something to be grasped,” could he simply be stating his belief that Jesus, a human like us, was created in God’s image and likeness?
Though we’re both human, the main difference between Jesus and us is that he successfully resisted the temptation to so deeply identify with God that he couldn’t identify with the most helpless of humans: slaves. Before he began his public ministry, he emptied himself enough to become one with the most worthless people on this planet.
Perhaps that’s why he was 30 years old before he “made his move.” His human emptying might have taken that long. Of course, following Paul’s theology, this drastic change in the human Jesus was why God eventually “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name (Yahweh) above every other name.”
Jesus seems never to have expected his followers to go through any transformation which he himself hadn’t first experienced.