This weekend I got to be the substitute priest in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Those poor people didn't know what was coming, as this weekend's homily involved a bit of Greek and a bit of talk about hell. Perhaps not the best way to ingratiate yourself with new people. I probably won't be invited back (kidding of course, they were very kind to me). Anyway, here's the homily (and here are the readings, if you need a reminder): I want to look at the context of the gospel reading, and then that will help us understand the gospel, and then the gospel will lead us into the second reading where there is a very important lesson for us. So first the gospel context. And I want to understand the context and what came just before this because there is a lot of tension here, but we might miss it if we don't have context. So the day before was Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where the people shouted "Hosanna to the Son of David," and they covered the road with their cloaks and palm branches as he rode in on a donkey. That made the chief priests quite uneasy.
Then, as soon as he got into Jerusalem, he went straight to the temple and drove out the money changers. Now, if you were a good Jew at this point, you knew that it was the duty of all Jews to go to the temple to offer animal sacrifice. But the authorities had decided that the only animals you could use for sacrifice were animals bought at the temple. And you could only buy those animals with special temple currency. So you had to exchange your own currency for temple currency, and then buy a temple animal, all just to perform your religious duty. A lot of people were getting very rich just so you could do your duty to God. Jesus destroyed all of this, and upset all the chief priests and elders in the process.
So Jesus is telling this parable the day after all that happened, and he addresses it specifically to the chief priests and elders. So we can't see this episode as just Jesus telling an interesting story, we have to see this short parable as Jesus going toe-to-toe with the people who will pay to have him executed in a matter of days.
Knowing all that, let's look at the gospel now. What Jesus is doing here is convicting those Jewish authorities who rejected him. They are like the second son who said they would work for the father and then didn't go. The Jewish authorities said yes to God initially, they became the top dogs of their religion, but they didn't do as God asked because they didn't accept Jesus, God's final and greatest Word to his people. On the other hand, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the dregs of Jewish society, they did say no to God in the beginning by their manner of life, but then they did the Father's will by accepting Jesus. This parable is a harsh judgment of the Jewish authorities because they had already rejected John the Baptist, and now they were rejecting Jesus. And now Jesus is basically telling the Pharisees that everyone you rejected is marching right into heaven before you, because in rejecting them, you rejected God.
Now Jesus knew what he was doing in going up against the authorities. He knew he was playing with fire, but he was completely in control the whole time. But why would he do this? Why would he pursue this course so persistently when he could see how it would end. He did it because this is how he would humble himself, and consequentially be exalted. This was how he would humble himself. And this issue of humbling himself is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Philippians today.
I was very excited when I saw this second reading, because I think that the second half of this reading is one of the coolest things that Paul wrote. It's actually an ancient hymn, we've always called it the kenotic hymn, because the Greek word kenosis means emptying or self-emptying. This hymn is about how Christ emptied himself of everything, and thus was exalted above all of creation, so I want to look closely at this hymn and see what it means for us. The first line of the hymn is "Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, rather he emptied himself." He emptied himself of his divinity, of the appearance of God, and he humbled himself. When we consider Jesus' original nature as the Second Person of the Trinity, coeternal with the Father, part of the Trinity that existed before all of creation, we should realize that humbling himself so as to become a human being, a body of flesh and blood that is subject to decay and death, is really hitting rock bottom. But then, he didn't just hit rock bottom, he started digging, because he allowed himself to actually be killed, and he died the humiliating death of a slave. Crucifixion wasn't intended as just an execution, it was intended also as a humiliation and a complete mockery of the one who was crucified. Jesus allowed this to happen to himself. Jesus hanging on the cross is literally the image of a man who has nothing left, he has completely emptied himself.
But then, Paul goes on to tell us what happened because Jesus allowed this to happen to himself: "Because of this, God greatly exalted him." Because of Jesus's obedience, humiliation, and death, he was exalted higher than the heavens. Because of Jesus' self-emptying, Paul tells us that the Father bestowed on him the name above every other name. What is this name? It's not the name "Jesus," he's had that name since birth. Name can also mean title, so what name did Father bestow on Jesus? Watch carefully how the hymn builds towards it: all knees should bend at this name, and not just on earth, but in heaven and hell as well. That encompasses all of creation, both the visible and the invisible world. There is nothing exempt from paying homage to this name. Every tongue most confess this name. And then Paul gives it to you: Jesus Christ is Lord. The title that Jesus has received is Lord. But not at the expense of God the Father's Lordship, Paul reassures us, but to his glory.
|The ruins of Philippi today|
Why does all this emptying and exaltation matter for us? Because Jesus is the perfect model of self-emptying. Like him, we have to empty ourselves so that we can be fill with Christ. Paul goes through this long explanation of emptying and exaltation because in the culture of Philippi, not totally unlike our own, social status, pecking order, personal accomplishment and contribution were of utmost importance, they were the source of your worth to the society. But Paul wants to suggest a different way. He wants to suggest that self-emptying, so as to raised up by God, are actually the source of your worth.
Now, this gets down to an important truth about our journey from here to Heaven. The only things that exist in Heaven are things that are of God, and so in order to enter heaven you have to empty yourself of everything that is not of God. All hatred, anger, deceit, grudges, jealousy, these sorts of things will not exist in Heaven, so we have to rid ourselves of them. I want to emphasize: this is not an option. In order to enter Heaven, you will be purified of these things, either in this life or in the next, in Purgatory. And if you choose to cling to these things at the expense of your relationship with God, then hell is a very real possibility. But the more we rid ourselves of these ungodly things in this life, the quicker we will enter Heaven after our death.
And Jesus wants to help you with this, that's why he gave us the beautiful sacrament of Confession. In Confession Jesus helps us get rid of these things that constantly drag us away from him. I know that many of us get frustrated with Confession because we feel like we're always bringing the same old sins. But it's a slow purification at work. In Confession, Jesus helps us to empty ourselves of everything that is not of him, of everything that has no place in Heaven, so that even now we are preparing to enter eternal life with him. So don't be afraid of Confession, don't be afraid of the self-emptying that's involved. Because the more we empty ourselves of sin and fill ourselves with God, the closer we grow to him in this life and prepare to be united to him in the next.