Today’s readings remind us that we have two fundamental choices in life when the Lord asks something of us: obedience or rebellion. Rebellion is a choice, but it is the wrong choice.
In today’s First Reading Ezekiel reminds us that those who blame the Lord for their destructive path and decisions are only deluding themselves. Rebellion is usually egged on by an injustice we have suffered. Today Ezekiel debunks any claim that God is unjust in letting the wicked perish and the virtuous live due to their actions. The most fundamental principle of ethics doesn’t even require the Bible. Aristotle in his ethics described it as “do good and avoid evil.” We’re free to do either, but we’re also responsible for the outcome. The Lord has simply established the “rules of the game.” He knows what is truly good, and he knows what is truly evil.
The wicked do evil, and many people suffer the consequences of their evil, not just them. The virtuous do good, and many people benefit from that good. The Lord has created us with the freedom to do good or to do evil. He wants us to do good, because he knows a virtuous life is a successful and beautiful life. He also knows the flipside of freedom: we’re free to blow it and choose evil. He doesn’t want us to do it, but he permits us to do it out of respect for our freedom. No one can honestly say the Lord hasn’t tried throughout salvation history to dissuade us from taking the wrong path. In the end our decisions are our own.
In today’s Second Reading St. Paul traces out a simple path for us to follow. It is the path Our Lord himself followed. He summarizes it very well: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” Everyone upon hearing those words experiences a little twinge of rebellion at the thought of it, which speaks directly to today’s Gospel.
Why do we say “yes” and not deliver? Because the thought of obeying and denying ourselves provokes inner rebellion. Mankind’s entire history of sin is a history of rebellion, so it’s no surprise that rebellion is deeply rooted in us. Our Lord gives us a different example: that of a profound obedience to the Father, and obedience that leads to his death, but also to his glory. It is a difficult path, so it is no surprise that we are hesitant at times to take it, but it is the most fulfilling one.
Our Lord in today’s Gospel reminds us that the true measure of success is not what we say, but what we do. That’s the determining factor of whether we let rebellion or obedience triumph in our life. Conversion is not letting that inner rebellion due to sin shape our decisions and actions. Rebellion can be pretty wild, even exciting, but in the end it doesn’t really lead us anywhere. A believer who says “yes” to God’s will but doesn’t do it, in the end, lets the rebellion win and, therefore, goes nowhere. His lips may have said “yes,” but in the end his heart said “no.”
A believer who says “no” in the throes of rebellion but obeys in the end has conquered and won. The Pharisees in today’s Gospel said “yes” to God’s will, but, in the end, didn’t do it. They maintained a façade of obedience that was revealed to be a façade when God came in Person and showed them a different path to follow. The tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, saw the opportunity at the coming of Jesus to quash the rebellion that had been enslaving them even as it had promised to empower them.
Ditch the rebel without a cause this week. Is there anything you’re struggling this week that’s making you say “no” to God when you should be saying “yes”? It’s never too late to put the rebel without a cause in its place. Meditate on the words of Paul in today’s Second Reading and try to put them into practice.
Readings: Ezekiel 18:25–28; Psalm 25:4–9; Philippians 2:1–11; Matthew 21:28–32.