26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
September 28, 2008
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection/Gospel Reflection

Readings: Ez 18:25-28 / Phil 2:1-11 / Mt 21:28-32

We all love people who mean what they say – people who do as they promise; who fulfill what they say they would do. As a child, I used to make tantrums when my parents or anybody older would make a little promise and then would forget about it. Disappointment would usually follow when that happens.

Today’s first reading seems no stranger to disappointment. The chosen people, disappointed that they are getting their just deserts after misbehaving, have the gall to complain: The Lord’s ways are not fair! Through Ezekiel, Yahweh tries to correct that misplaced disappointment. No, it is not God who is unfair, but us who do evil deeds in his sight.

Evil deeds… iniquity… and death as an aftereffect of that iniquity… sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? We reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. Tit for tat. Measure for measure. An eye for an eye… a tooth for a tooth… It is so easy for us to fall into this trap of a popular New Age concept… karma… one deserves to suffer because one has done evil. Tagalog slang even has coined a word for it: resbak. Do evil and evil will turn around to get back at you. What goes around, comes around!

Now, if this were our understanding, then, I agree. The Lord’s ways are unfair!

One sad thing that I find is gradually seeping into the mainstream belief system of many Christians and catholics is that very popular word KARMA, which comes from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, which has over the past years, been popularized by New Age doctrine and practices. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, it seems to me karma refers to a certain payback system. One pays for what harmful thing one does to nature, to fellow humans, to animals, etc. One pays for what one does not do which he ought to do. One suffers – and through a constant purification process (viewed negatively) one reaches perfection, and attains that state of emptiness of all desire called nirvana.

The Christian doctrine of grace, however, is positive, not negative. It smacks of being filled, not being emptied. Grace enlivens us, not empties us. Grace is participation in God’s life, not being emptied of all cares. Grace is good news. Karma is not. Grace is liberating joy. Karma is enslaving fear. Grace perfects us. Karma diminishes our person. Grace is positive perfection that is a gift from God. Karma is negative “perfection” that is based on deprivation and emptiness. Karma is emptiness as a goal. Grace is emptiness as a process toward fullness, a step towards perfection. Karma’s emptiness is a fruit of human effort. The emptiness that comes as a prelude to grace is human and divine in nature.

Let us look at what St. Paul tells us. He speaks about Christ’s self-emptying –his kenosis as the Greek word puts it. “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Now what more and better expression of self-emptying is there than this? What better expression is there of humility than for the Son of God to take on human form and become one like us, leaving aside for the meantime His divinity and dwelling amongst us, pitching his tent in our midst? This surely is self-emptying pushed to the hilt! But St. Paul hastens to add, “But because of this, God greatly exalted him, and bestowed to him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”

This is emptiness that is positive… emptiness that smacks of fullness. This is not the karma that popular culture seems to be extolling to the full. This is pleroma – the fullness that can be had in Christ, who in his utter humility and self-emptying, has been exalted high above all creatures in the heavens and on the earth.

This is the fullness of one who obeys. Paradoxically, one who obeys empties himself/herself apparently of all, including one’s self-determination. One gives his all, in a sense by obeying.

In the Gospel of today, we have a picture of genuine obedience that is of the self-emptying kind spoken of by St. Paul. One gives nothing more than his word. “Yes sir!” But he did not obey. He did not do as he said. He gave up nothing. The other son said, “I will not!” But later he probably thought better, and without saying anything further, just went and did his concrete act of self-emptying by doing what he was told to do.

There is something here that merits our reflection for today. The world is littered with broken promises. We make and break vows everyday. In the U.S. 50% of marriages end up in divorce sooner or later. And since we in the Philippines just love to ape what they do elsewhere, we are fast going that direction, too. Although illegal, I was told that there are 300,000 abortions done every year in the Philippines – mostly done through crude, if not, cruel means. Politicians get elected on the basis of promises to the poor and downtrodden. But once in power, those same promises don’t get to see the light of day. We break promises just as fast as we make them. And the primary motivation why they are broken? Definitely not that which led Jesus to empty himself of his divinity…definitely not that which led him to humble himself and become one like us. Why do we break promises? Because of our utter love of self… because of our selfishness and the insatiable desires of our hearts.

Great promises do not make for greatness as a person. No one gets a reward for the promises one does. The proof of the pudding is in the eating… handsome is, as handsome does! Good intentions alone do not send us straight to heaven. The road to hell, they say, is paved with a lot of good intentions. Holiness, fullness, perfection, greatness… call it what you might…it refers to what we do, not what we say we would do!