Obedience as the Conversion of Love

Lectio Divina: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

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Roman Rite – XXVI Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – September 28, 2014

Ez 18.25-28; Ps 25; Phil 2,1-11; Mt 21.28 to 32.

Ambrosian Rite – Fifth Sunday after the martyrdom of St. John the Precursor

Dt 6.4 to 12; Ps 17; Gal 5.1 to 14; Mt 22, 34-40

1) Obedience to love is freedom.

The first and instinctive reaction we have reading the parable of the Father who sends his two sons to work in the vineyard is to identify ourselves with the one son who says yes but then disobeys, or with the other who rebels against his father’s request, but then obeys. In fact, these two brothers make the same basic mistake: both consider the Father a master.

The first son agrees immediately to go the vineyard because he wants the father to believe what he is not, but then doesn’t fulfill his commitment. The second son clearly answers «I do not want». He considers the work in the vineyard too heavy, would prefer to do something else and has other projects, but then ”regrets” what he has done[1]. The love of the Father wins over him and he walks towards the vineyard.

If the Father is seen and treated as a boss we tend to live as slaves of a superior will with which we do not agree and to which we subdue with fear. With this parable Christ shows us that if we repent we can follow the will of the Father by attraction of love and not by coercion. God is a father, not a master. God is the Father who loves and invites to accept his love.

Love is not easy, especially when it gives us orders we do not understand and we consider a limit to our freedom. Jesus teaches us that our freedom demands first of all to reject our own selfishness and to put an end to sin so that by adhering to God, our life in God may unfold in the world. The journey of the soul in real life is a relationship of obedience. At first it is certainly a renouncing of oneself (cf. Mk 8:34) and a self-denial but it is to come back from the alienation in which sin has placed us and to return to the full possession of being in God. In adhering to God our soul can experience more and more divine freedom and expand and broaden in the immensity of the life of God. For this reason obedience is the way of life! To exempt ourselves from obedience to God is to exempt ourselves from life. We  remain shrunken in our little world, closed and suffocated by sin, alienated from ourselves and from our true self that is loved by God, from whose Love our love is born.

The son who had said «no» to the Father then converted to this Love. What has disarmed the refusal of this child? Repentance caused by a change in heart and mind. His repentance (see note 1) meant “a change of mentality, a change in the way to see,» the father and the vineyard. The father is no longer a master to obey, or even worse, to deceive. He is the head of the family who sends his son into the vineyard, which is also his, for a plentiful harvest and for a wine of celebration for the whole house. And the labor becomes full of hope and love.

The obedient son who «repented» (cf. Mt 21, 30) had understood that the basic alternative was (and is) between a sterile existence and fertile one, that turned (and turns) a corner of the desert into a vineyard and his family in a fragment of the paradise of God. Far from diminishing his dignity of child, obedience makes his freedom grow and puts it in order, as a kind of religious ordination for the mission to cultivate the vineyard of the world. It is like the imposition of hands on the day of the priestly ordination in which the mission of the priest begins. In the name of God, the Bishop sends the new priest into the vineyard of the Lord. Obedience is imitation of Christ and participation in his mission. Whoever obeys, takes care of doing what Jesus has done and, at the same time, what he would do in the situation in which each of us finds himself today.

2) Obedience[2] and freedom are not contradictory.

God «dares» to entrust His vineyard to us. He gives us his «property,» He «orders» us to work entrusting his plan of goodness to our freedom, and to make it happen. The obedience of the Virgin Mother «realized» God, gave flesh to God, and had an experience of great freedom. God asks us the same thing. Obedience is our response to his love. Obedience is the fruit of love and service to Love. There is no love without obedience and love without obedience becomes servile.

The Son of God took on the human condition for every child of God, rebellious but repented and capable of love. He lived among us as a servant, faced the judgment of the arrogant, rose on the cross and died. In his death, all sins have been washed away. In his resurrection every sinner is resurrected and becomes able to love God again and to listen and to obey to His Word that tells words that challenge each of us every day.

 Jesus warns us not only from a religiousness empty, cold and formal that consumes itself in external practices but also invites us to cultivate a deep faith and a genuine filial relationship with God firmly rooted in the love that welcomes , listens, and humbly obeys.

Among the brothers, Jesus is the third one, the one who says «yes» right away and also does what he is told. This third brother[3] is the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who coming into the world said: «Behold, I come […] to do, O God, thy will» (Heb 10.7). He has not only spoken this “yes”, but he  has accomplished it, obeyed it  and suffered it  up to death and a death on the cross (cf. Phil 2: 6-8).

In humility and obedience, Jesus fulfilled the will of the Father, died on the cross for his brothers and sisters – for us – and has redeemed us from our pride and stubbornness.

These two virtues, together with chastity and poverty, make the cross that every day we are «ordered» to carry to save us and the world: «Obedience consecrates our hearts, chastity our bodies, poverty our goods to the love and service of God: they are the three arms of the spiritual cross and rest on the fourth which is humility «(St. Francis de Sales, Philothea, chap. 10).

Humility does not enjoy – nowadays, and perhaps has never enjoyed – a great consideration, but the consecrated Virgins in the world know that this virtue makes fruitful the work in the vineyard of God. Humility comes from the Latin word humilitas, which has to do with humus (earth) that is with adherence to the ground, to reality. These women, who have donated themselves entirely to God, live as humble people because living in Him and for Him, they humbly listen to Christ, the Word of God. They tend to have the same feelings of their loved Spouse («Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus”) (Philippians 2.5). St. Augustine said «There is no love without humility» (Prologue to the Commentary on the Epistle of St. John), and in another book he wrote: «The keeper of virginity is charity, the house where this guardian lives is humility «(On Holy virginity, 51, 52).

The vocation of the consecrated virginity as a complete gift of self to Christ and as the sign of the Bride Church, is expressed in their complete trust in the love of their Bridegroom, in the intensity of communion with Him and in humble charity that becomes selfless service to the Church and luminous testimony of faith, hope and charity in the context of ordinary life.

As requested by the Rite of Consecration each member of the Ordo Virginum takes the commitment of constantly keeping in mind that prayer is not only a personal, generous response to the voice of the bridegroom and a humble plea for help so to remain faithful to her holy purpose and the gift that she has received, but it is also intimate participation in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ, tireless intercession for the Church and for the world.

Patristic Reading

The Golden Chain

ON MATTHEW 21,28-32

Jerome: Thus much prefaced, the Lord brings forward a parable, to convict them of their irreligion, and show them that the kingdom of God should be transferred to the Gentiles.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Those who are to be judged in this cause, He applies to as judges that condemning themselves they might be shown to be unworthy to be acquitted by any other. It is high confidence of the justness of a cause that will entrust it to the decision of an adversary. But He veils the allusion to them in a parable that they might not perceive that they were passing sentence upon themselves; «A certain man had two sons.» Who is he but God, who created all men, who being by nature Lord of all, yet would rather be loved as a father, than feared as a Lord. The elder son was the Gentile people, the younger the Jews, since from the time of Noah there had been Gentiles. And he came to the (p. 725) first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. Today,» i.e. during this age. He spoke with him, not face to face as man, but to his heart as God, instilling understanding through the senses. To work in the vineyard is to do righteousness; for to cultivate the whole thereof, I know not that any one man is sufficient.

Jerome: He speaks to the Gentile people first, through their knowledge of the law of nature; «Go and work in my vineyard;» i.e. «What you would not have done to you, that do not you to others.» (Tb 4, 16) He answers haughtily, «I will not.»

Pseudo-Chrys.: For the Gentiles from the beginning leaving God and his righteousness, and going over to idols and sins, seem to make answer in their thoughts, we will not do the righteousness of God.

Jerome: But when, at the coming of the Savior, the Gentile people, having done penitence, labored in God’s vineyard, and atoned by their labor for the obstinacy of their refusal, this is what is said, «But afterward he repented, and went.» The second son is the Jewish people who made answer to Moses, «All that the Lord hath said unto us we will do.» (Ex 24, 3)

Pseudo-Chrys.: But afterwards turning their backs, they lied unto God, according to that in the Psalms, «The sons of the strangers have lied unto me.» (Ps 18,44) This is what is said, «But he went not.» The Lord accordingly asks «which of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first.» See how they have first sentence upon themselves, saying, that the elder son, that is, the Gentile people, did the will of his father. For it is better not to promise righteousness before God, and to do it, than to promise, and to fail.

Origen: Whence we may gather, that in this parable the Lord spoke to such as promise little or nothing, but in their works shine forth; and against those who promise great things but do none of these things that they have promised.

Jerome: It should be known that in the correct copies it is read not «The last,» but The first,» that they might be condemned by their own sentence. But should we prefer to read, as some have it, «The last,» the explanation is obvious, to say that the Jews understood the truth, but dissembled, and would not say what they thought; just as though they knew that the baptism of John was from heaven, they would not say so.

Pseudo-Chrys.: The Lord abundantly confirms their decision, (p. 726) whence it follows, «Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto yon, that the publicans and harlots shall go before you in the kingdom of God;» as much as to say, Not only the Gentiles are before you, but even the publicans and the harlots.

Raban.: Yet the kingdom of God may be understood of the Gentiles, or of the present Church, in which the Gentiles go before the Jews, because they were more ready to believe.

Origen: Notwithstanding, the Jews are not shut out that they should never enter into the kingdom of God; but, «when the fullness of the Gentiles shall have entered in, then all Israel shall be saved.»

Pseudo-Chrys.: I suppose that the «publicans» here are to represent all sinful men, and «the harlots» all sinful women; because avarice is found the most prevailing vice among men, and fornication among women. For a woman’s life is passed in idleness and seclusion, which are great temptations to that sin, while a man, constantly occupied in various active duties, falls readily into the snare of covetousness, and not so commonly into fornication, as the anxieties of manly cares preclude thoughts of pleasure, which engage rather the young and idle.

Then follows the reason of what He had said, «For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed Him not.»

Raban.: John came preaching the way of righteousness, because he pointed to Christ, who is the fulfilling of the Law.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Or, because his venerable conversation smote the hearts of sinners, as it follows, «But the Publicans and harlots believed on him.» Mark how the good life of the preacher gives its force to his preaching, so as to subdue unsubdued hearts. «And ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him;» as much as to say, They have done that which is more by believing on Him, ye have not even repented, which is less.

But in this exposition which we have set forth according to the mind of many interpreters, there seems to me something inconsistent. For if by the two sons are to be understood the Jews and Gentiles, as soon as the Priests had answered that it was the first son that did his father’s will, then Christ should have concluded His parable with these words, Verily I say unto you, that the Gentiles shall go into the kingdom of God before you. But He says, «The Publicans and harlots,» a class rather of Jews (p. 727) than of Gentiles. Unless this is to be taken as was said above; So much rather the Gentile people please God than you, that even the Publicans and harlots are more acceptable to Him than you.

Jerome: Whence others think that the parable does not relate to Gentiles and Jews, but simply to the righteous and to sinners. These by their evil deeds had rejected God’s service, but after received from John the baptism of repentance; while the Pharisees who made a shew of righteousness, and boasted that they did the law of God, despising John’s baptism, did not follow his precepts.

Pseudo-Chrys.: This He brings in because the Priests had asked not in order to learn, but to tempt Him. But of the common folk many had believed; and for that reason He brings forward the parable of the two sons, showing them therein that the common sort, who from the first professed secular lives, were better than the Priests who from the first professed the service of God, inasmuch as the people at length turned repentant to God, but the Priests impenitent, never left off to sin against God. And the elder son represents the people; because the people is not for the sake of the Priests, but the Priests are for the sake of the people.

[1] The Greek text of the Gospel uses the aorist participle of μεταμέλομαι (metamélomai = I regret), which literally should be translated «having changed his mind he had the heart to do something,» that is to go to work in the vineyard. In short, «to change the way to see, to think”. This verb in addition to being used in verse 30 of chapter 21 of Matthew for the obedient son is also used in verse 32.

[2] To obey comes from the Latin, and means to listen, to hear each other. «To obey God is liste
ning to God, have an open heart to go on the road that God shows us. Obedience to God is listening to God. And this makes us free. «(Pope Francis).

On August 19, 2012 for the XX Sunday of Year B I wrote: «To obey to God is” to realize «God. The Virgin Mary with her «yes” made Jesus.  Her “Fiat” gave flesh to the Word of God.  With my «yes» to Christ’s command: «Do this in memory of me «, I make him. When in the Mass I say: «This is my body,» I make Him, and I give flesh to the Word of God. Loving obedience to God is liberating, it is freedom, because his command is not an imposition of an arbitrary and capricious God, but a word (logos) with which lovingly He reveals his heart and our future.

[3] It is an intuition of the pope emeritus Benedict XVI

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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