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Reflection on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Posted on September 27, 2020, by Eleanor Craig SL


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


I have my own version of the Gospel story: My mother would say to my sister, ‘Please wash the dishes,’ and my sister would say an emphatic, belligerent ‘NO!’ It was clear she would not change her mind without confrontation. My mother would then sigh and say to me, ‘Eleanor please wash the dishes’ and I would say (perhaps piously, perhaps really meaning it), ‘SURE.’

I hated washing dishes, and I would put it off late into the evening — forever, if I could manage to “forget.” If I finally did the dishes, it was because my conscience nagged me, not my mother.

I didn’t think I was being disobedient — I just didn’t want to wash the dishes. In other words, I was attached to my own interests; I didn’t much think about my mother’s “will.” And of course, compared to my sister, I was far less disobedient; at least I didn’t belligerently say NO!

In the Gospel story Jesus tells about two sons who act pretty much like my sister and I. One flat-out refused to do what his father asked, then later changed his mind. The other agreed but didn’t follow through. Jesus asks the religious leaders which of the sons did his father’s will. They reply (perhaps piously, certainly legalistically) that the one who eventually complied did his father’s will. Considering my girlhood experience with the dishes, I’d say that neither son did his father’s will; both followed their own inclinations. Even the one who reconsidered was likely not thinking of his father’s wishes. Maybe he thought about the consequences: possible punishment, or what others would think of him or loss of his father’s regard. Maybe he was ashamed of his behavior. My childish self would conclude if the son was doing his father’s will, he would have done it to begin with … wouldn’t he?

That was my childish thinking, a bit like the legalistic thinking of the religious leaders in the Gospel. Jesus saw it differently, and said so.

In the second half of the Gospel passage, Jesus challenges the religious leaders to walk the talk. They affirmed the possibility of change of heart, but in practice they held wrongdoers irrevocably bound to their wrongs. They resisted the good news, proclaimed by both John the Baptist and by Jesus: wrongdoers can change; repentance and conversion are possible; the good news is that no one’s failure is permanent, no one’s blindness is forever. Whether one refuses or delays, one can always change, there is always another chance to do the Father’s will.

Jesus points out to the religious leaders that their resistance to this good news is double-edged: They have been using their authority to hold tax collectors, prostitutes and other “sinners” bound, as though beyond hope of conversion. But even worse, the religious leaders have hardened their own hearts, disbelieving the good news of the kingdom of God, and resisting God’s invitation to change their minds, to open their hearts. Nevertheless, change is still possible even for them; Jesus’ very challenge is another invitation to change. The Gospels show us Jesus never giving up on the possibility of change and conversion.

To grasp what it means for one to thoroughly do the Father’s will, we have only to look at today’s second reading. We have in the excerpt from Paul’s epistle the quintessential description of how to know and do God’s will. Jesus didn’t cling to his privileged place at God’s right hand. Surrendering to all the limitations and requirements of the human condition, he no longer had an inside track to God’s will. Like us, Jesus depended on his very human sense of God’s loving ways. He lived a life of humility, learning as we learn, faltering and falling, growing and changing.

Was Jesus ever wrong; did he ever fail to do his Father’s will? We can hardly expect his disciples to tell us, but our own human experience suggests he probably did fail sometimes. Using Jesus’ own criterion in today’s Gospel, we can certainly conclude that if Jesus ever failed, ever resisted or rebelled, was ever wrong, he changed, was changed by the love to which he learned to surrender. The Jesus of the Gospels showed his followers — and shows us— how to seek and do God’s will in a way consistent with our human limitations.

Just this week, in the lives of three women we have loved in their lives and mourn in their deaths, we have strong reminders of the possibility of change, even in civil and religious leaders. Our sister Maureen McCormack gave “Intensive Journal” workshops for decades to women in prison, women who many had written off as incorrigible. Maureen understood that self-understanding, self-affirmation are the path to change. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recognizing that the law reflects the culture, dedicated her life to the men who rule our courts, helping them to a new understanding of equality under the law. And we have the touching story of our sister Susan Carol McDonald, impelled by her own heart to go to Vietnam. She was sought out by President Helen Sanders, who well might have stood in the way because Susan ignored the rules for getting permission or consulting higher authority. Instead Helen only asked, “What do you need from us?” “How can we help?”

And again, just this week, in our national politics and national culture, and here in our midst we have strong reminders of the need for change, in the behaviors and beliefs of leaders, followers, and all of us. Jesus challenges us to hold fast to the good news and live our days in the confidence that every heart can change when touched by the love of God.

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Eleanor Craig SL

Eleanor has been a Sister of Loretto since 1963 and an educator since birth. She graduated from two of Loretto's best known St. Louis institutions, Nerinx Hall High School in 1960, and Webster University in 1967. She taught mathematics at Loretto in Kansas City, where her personal passion for adventure history inspired her to develop and lead treks along the historic Oregon Trail. From 1998 to 2010 she created an award-winning program of outdoor adventure along the Western trails for teens who are visually impaired. Eleanor claims to have conducted more wagon trains to the West than the Mountain Men! From 2012 to 2021, Eleanor led a talented staff of archivists and preservationists at the Loretto Heritage Center on the grounds of the Motherhouse. Now retired, she still serves in the Heritage Center as Loretto Community Historian.