In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in the number of advertisements that invite people who have had an accident at work to call legal firms to sue for damages. If company negligence is responsible for that accident, it is important that victims have the proper legal assistance to gain compensation for their injury; and if a crime has been committed and a person’s life has been damaged, that justice is sought and won.
However, there’s no doubt that we now live, rightly or wrongly, in a culture of litigation where more and more of us seek to blame everything wrong, bad or unhappy in our lives either on the past or on someone else, to the point where we can shrug off personal responsibility.
The Prophet Ezekiel in the first reading attacks this idea of others being to blame for our personal misfortune. He is addressing his fellow exiles in Babylon who did not want to take responsibility for their own actions which led to their exile. They preferred instead to hold on to the old notion that their misfortune was the fault of a previous generation, that they were suffering for the sins of their ancestors. They object to Ezekiel that God is being unjust by holding each individual responsible for his or her own actions.
Ezekiel points out that we cannot hide behind the goodness or evil of others; each of us, he says, stands before God in our own goodness or badness and is judged accordingly. We are judged by what we are and not by what others are like. Each individual is responsible for their own moral decisions and they cannot abdicate this freedom. God respects the personal moral decisions we make and holds us to account for them. We cannot shrug off our guilt by appealing to an otherwise blameless life while those who have repented/changed their ways after a life of wrong will be rewarded.
In the Gospel Jesus defends the public sinners he has befriended who have changed their ways. They are regarded as contemptible outcasts by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. So Jesus tells a parable of two sons who were asked to go to work by their father. One said ‘no’ at first but changed his mind (like the tax collectors and pubic sinners who have repented). The second son said ‘yes’ at first but did not go to work for his father (like the religious leaders who have failed, despite their promises, to do as God asks).
On the face of it these public sinners had at first refused what is required of them because they did not keep the Law. Now they repented through encountering Christ and responding to the preaching of John the Baptist The point of the parable is that the leaders of the Jews who have promised to work for God have failed to do so and will be rejected. Those who have thought better of it – like the tax collectors and prostitutes, for example – have afterwards repented, are now doing God’s will and will be received into God’s kingdom.
So what does Our Lord’s message ask of us today?
Perhaps, first, he may want us to not resent those who, however late in life, finally respond to God’s love. and join our Church It is never too late for them or us to change our ways in keeping with his law of love. And, second, perhaps it is to realise that what we profess in life is not enough on its own; it has no value if it is not translated into active obedience to God’s will in practical action. This warning is addressed not just to Our Lord’s critics in Jerusalem but to ‘religious’ people in every age, people just like us.
Holy Name, Jesmond
27 September 2020