This first reading from Ezekiel always reminds me of the sacrament of reconciliation. It highlights the spiritual nature of our actions. And I think our other readings also speak to this.
When I was in Rome, the house I lived at doubled as the US pilgrimage office. People would come to get tickets for the Papal audiences. They would often take the opportunity to go to confession. The priests in the house would take turns hearing confessions, doing tours or giving talks. Over time, it became clear that people did not seem to understand the sacrament; probably due to lack of practice. Many seemed to see it as magic. They did not understand the need to be sorry for their actions, and sorry in very concrete ways. Nor did they understand the respect God has for their freedom. For example, many did not seem to understand that repentance meant, at least, stopping doing the wrongful act. Without that, there could be no absolution and definitely no communion with God. They did not seem to understand the spiritual reality of choices, and the great respect God has for our freedom.
This seems to be a widespread problem. The Vatican only recently has had to issue a document reiterating that people who take advantage of euthanasia legislation reject God, and therefore the Church is in no position to give them the sacraments. For such people, there has to be an obvious indication that they repent of their decision before the Church can intervene. To think that the Church could do intervene without this would mean that the Church could ignore people’s freedom, or that the sacraments were magic or meaningless, which is to say the same thing. (Sadly, this is something we have to think about in Victoria, to our great shame.)
As I said, there seems to be confusion about spiritual reality of choices, and the great respect God has for our freedom. We see some of this addressed in our first reading.
Really broadly speaking, our actions can be looked at in two ways: 1) the exterior effects, and 2) the interior effects. The exterior effects are easy to understand. If I eat the last slice of cake, then there is no more cake. The interior effect is more subtle. I have made myself into someone who takes the last slice of cake.
Now, obviously the exterior effect lasts. There is no more cake. But also, the interior effect lasts: I remain someone who takes the last slice of cake. It remains, that is, until another such moment occurs. When another such moment occurs, I am faced with a choice. Do I confirm my previous choice and remain this type of person, or do I repent of my previous choice and change who I am? Do I choose to stay the same or do I choose to become someone new? This is the spiritual nature of our actions. The formation of character. (Though, given this is the interior aspect, we don’t have to wait for another cake. We can simply confirm or repent our previous decision. Though the formation of character can make doing the right thing easier or harder.)
We hear all this in our first reading. The good person is formed by good actions, just as the wicked person is formed by bad actions. There is no magic. Previous actions don’t magically undermine subsequent actions. In fact, this is our cooperation in God’s act of creation. As in our gospel, we either choose to do good and follow God’s will in our lives, or we choose to reject God’s word. Our moral acts, our living the truth in freedom is our participation in God’s act of creation. This is the great dignity of humanity, and we see this referred to in our second reading.
The second part of our second reading from Philippians is one of the great hymns of the New Testament. The Church often prays this at Evening Prayer. In it, St Paul actually compares Jesus to Adam; and this is one of St Paul’s great themes. Jesus as the new Adam, Adam being the Hebrew word for humanity. St Paul often contrasts the first Adam, the earthly human, with the second Adam, the spiritual human. When you know this, our hymn today becomes an obvious comparison.
The first line shows this: “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.” St Paul is contrasting Jesus, who is divine, with Adam, who is not. Where Adam tries to seize divinity by taking the fruit, Jesus gives it away. Where Adam tries to become equal to God, Jesus adopts the form of the slave. Where Adam does not listen to God, Jesus listens to his Father. Power versus obedience. Taking versus giving and receiving. St Paul shows us how the typical human way stacks up against the divine way.
Our gospel extends this reality to every moment. As I said, we do not have to wait for big moments like the end of life. The spiritual reality, our job of co-creation is every moment. We can choose to listen and act, or choose to ignore. What we can’t choose is the meaning of these fundamental attitudes. Obedience is a participation in the life of Christ, the heavenly Adam. Failure to act is a participation in the life of the earthly Adam, destined for futility.
Each moment of freedom then is sacred. At each moment, we are choosing who we are in the presence of God, and our present includes our past and also points ahead to our future.
We see this really well in the sacrament of reconciliation. In repenting of sins, we change these dead-end moments into doorways to God. Oscar Wilde in his book De Profundis puts it beautifully when he writes:
Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, ‘Even the Gods cannot alter the past.’ Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine-herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life.
This week then let us return to this gospel many times. Let us realise how much it demands of us. Even our interpretation of it is called into question. What are we choosing to ignore? Which words of Jesus don’t we want to hear? We might think, surely God is not talking about that?! Surely, when Jesus tells us not to be angry at our neighbour, God doesn’t mean now and doesn’t mean him? Surely, when Jesus tells us to judge not, God doesn’t mean now and doesn’t mean her? Surely, when God says seek first the kingdom of God, Jesus doesn’t mean now when there is so much else to do?
Let us pray then for the peace of heart to receive God’s Word at all times and however it comes. Trusting that this is the work we are supposed to do. Right now; and in our own patch of the vineyard.