Philippians 2:1-11 or 2:1-5
Graham Greene was a British novelist who has come to be regarded as one of the greatest English-language writers of the last century. Greene (who passed away in 1991) wrote more than two dozen novels as well as several plays, screenplays, and collections of short stories. Woven throughout his writings are religious themes, especially about the themes of forgiveness and redemption. Anyone who has read the story of the nameless “Whiskey Priest” in The Power and the Glory, of the adulterous Sarah in The End of the Affair, or of the Cervantes-inspired Monsignor Quixote knows Greene, who was also Roman Catholic, artfully weaves together questions of God and faith with the complexities—and darkness—of life and love.
In one of his non-religious novels, the thriller Brighton Rock, Greene again finds an opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy and the hope of redemption when he writes, “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Greene is right. When weighed against human standards, God’s mercy is appallingly strange because it costs us so little: God asks only that we surrender to his love and mercy.
This way of surrender is modeled by Jesus himself: obedience.
Although “obedience” is an unpopular word in our contemporary culture, it is one of the non-negotiables of Christian life. Instead of being based on the ideas of authority and submission, real obedience, the kind of obedience Jesus showed to his Father, is based on relationships. In essence, to be obedient to another person is to say to them, “I love you so much that I’m willing to do what you ask or give you want you need without you even having to ask.” It’s to recognize that we are bound to one another and that we are responsible for caring for each other.
In fact, our word “obedience” comes from the Latin work oboedire, which can be translated simply as “to listen.” Ultimately, to be obedient to someone is to listen to them with, as Saint Benedict says in his Rule for Monasteries, “the ear of the heart” (cf. Prologue).
In his Letter to the Philippians, which we will hear in our second reading this Sunday, Saint Paul reminds of the obedience of Jesus who, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). Jesus offered his life as an act of obedience to God the Father for our sakes. He recognized what the Father was asking of him and what would be the best for us and he surrendered his life on the cross as the greatest act of love that is possible.
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus himself speaks of obedience in the parable of the two sons. The fundamental question here is, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” In this parable, we are being reminded that if we are really going to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, we have to be willing to set aside our preferences and prejudices and orient our lives to God’s will and what is best for those around us. Obedience demands that we make a gift of ourselves for the good of others, just as Jesus did.
In the eighteenth century the French Jesuit priest Jean Pierre de Caussade reflected, “The free gifts he asks of us are self-denial, obedience and love. The rest is his business. It does not matter whether the soul is carefully fulfilling the duties of one’s state of life, or quietly following the leadings it is given, or submitting peacefully to the dealings of grace.” For most of us, this “free gift” is a process of surrender which unfolds gradually over the course of a life of prayer, service, struggle, and, yes, even setbacks.
Our prayer this Sunday is that we might have open minds and hearts so that we can freely respond to what is being asked of us as we continue live out our call to discipleship.
Br. Silas Henderson, SDS
O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy,
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
—Collect for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Excerpt from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, ICEL. All rights reserved.