Bishop Vincent’s Homily: God acts beyond our narrow confines and stereotypes

01 October 2023: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta.

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2023

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

01 October 2023

“God acts beyond our narrow confines and stereotypes”

Dear friends,

Some years ago, a proposal to build a mosque was a source of division in a little country town in Victoria. Muslim migrants who settled in the area had nowhere to worship but a little room at the railway station. The much-needed mosque, however, proved to be divisive for a town that had been made up of mostly Anglo-Celtic and Christian people. It was the local Catholic priest who joined the fundraising effort and public campaign. Thanks to him and like-minded folks, the mosque today stands as a symbol of harmony and richness.

I share this story because I believe the Word of God today challenges us with an uncomfortable truth that God acts beyond our narrow confines and stereotypes. We tend to limit God’s reach to certain kind of people whom we deem as worthier than others. Yet, consistently, he is revealed as the God who breaks new grounds and extends new boundaries.

In the first reading, Ezekiel speaks to the exiles who are in a state of despair because of the harrowing experience in Babylon. They have given up hope of returning to their homeland. They have resigned themselves to utter helplessness. Ezekiel, however, demonstrates that they will not be abandoned. He explains to them that life awaits them if they renounce idolatry and follow the way of God. For he is a God who forgives freely, welcomes unconditionally and loves without limits. Ezekiel’s teaching is affirmed time and again throughout the Gospel. God is the God of compassion rather than judgment. This is the same God who embraces the prodigal son, who surprises the eleventh hour worker and who lavishes love on tax collectors and sinners.

Last Sunday’s parable of the vineyard, Jesus makes it clear that the economy of the kingdom is not based on individual merit, competition, success and achievement. Rather, it is all about making sure that no one is lost or left behind. It is the ethic of care and concern for others that must set us apart from the world’s trickle-down and winners-take-all system.

In today’s parable, Jesus continues to portray a God who is interested in reaching out to those on the margins and making outsiders insiders. He concludes the story with a shocking statement: “I tell you truly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you.”

In a culture of honour and shame, tax collectors and prostitutes carry the worst possible social stigma. By crafting the parable in their favour, Jesus reverses the table. The lowly and despised who avail themselves of God’s mercy are reckoned righteous. The privileged who see no need of repentance are condemned for their arrogance. In God’s Kingdom the outsiders can really become insiders, and the insiders can become outsiders.  There is no one who we can write off as being too far outside God’s reach.

Jesus’ critique is not limited to individuals. We must be humble enough to examine whether our faith community has a kind of a “second son” culture, that is, we display symptoms of a judgemental, closed and insular community. Pope Francis is fond of saying that the Church is not a museum for saints or an enclosure for the virtuous. It is more like a field hospital, which heals the wounded, strengthens the weak and lifts up the lowly.

Dear brothers and sisters,

When we survey Jesus’ interactions with the people, those who showed great faith, openness and receptivity to him were not always the standard bearers, not always those who were of his race, religion, or even kindred. Instead, we found to our surprise, they were the unlikely characters: the lepers, the beggars, the foreigners, the tax collectors, even prostitutes and sinners.

The Gospel today challenges us to be a model community of mercy, inclusion and solidarity. Jesus who associated himself with the lowly and at the same time laid bare the narrow mindset of the privileged. At the end of the day, it is by our works of love, outreach and care for the oppressed and disadvantaged that set us apart as his true disciples. The world operates on the basis of one’s ethnicity, social status, culture and religion. The God Jesus revealed calls out exclusionary attitudes and false claims of superiority. He is found in the least and the last.

St Paul gives us a magnificent reflection of the self-emptying of Christ which is a pattern for all of us. It is his downward journey in order to demonstrate God’s radical love that sees him raised as the King of kings and Lord of lords. For those who follow him, the downward journey is the path of transformation. Let us endeavor to live the radical grace of God that turns outsiders into insiders. As we recognize our own need of repentance and conversion, let us be the Church that is the agent of justice, reconciliation and healing in the world. Let others recognize the power of our God at work within and even beyond our own circle.

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