The passage from Philippians that is read today captures the very essence of both the Incarnation and our redemption through Jesus Christ. Often referred to as the “Christ Hymn,” it includes an exhortation to fashion our own minds and hearts after his example of humble self-sacrifice.
Paul states that “though [Jesus] was in the form of God [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” In poetic fashion, Paul here explains the Incarnation as a kind of relinquishing of divine privilege. He does not say that Jesus renounced his divine character, but that he set it aside and assumed instead the form of a servant or slave.
This picture of a humble Jesus is confirmed by various Gospel accounts. Nowhere do we find him demanding, or even expecting, that others accord him the respect that is his due. There is no condescending query, “Don’t you know who I am?” On the contrary, he makes himself available to others, meeting their needs and supporting them in their efforts. Jesus not only steps down from the exalted heights of divinity, but he also refrains from claiming any kind of human entitlement. Instead, he chooses to be the servant of all. The humility evident in the Incarnation is placed before us today for our imitation.
The extent of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for others is seen in his self-immolation for our redemption. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.” If in the Incarnation, he set aside his divine privilege in order to show us how to be truly human, by his death for our redemption he showed us how to be willing to pay the price that may be exacted when we are faithful to our destiny. By dying for us as he did, he relinquished even the human dignity that was his. Jesus truly emptied himself for our sake.
Paul’s exhortation is startling: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory.” This was a demanding challenge to a society governed by principles of honor and shame. One’s place in such a society was determined by one’s reputation. To suggest that one humble oneself was unthinkable. Yet this is precisely what Paul is urging, and he offers the image of the humble Jesus as a model to follow.
The tension between honor and shame plays an important role in the Gospel reading as well. There, however, these principles are turned upside down. The “chief priests and elders of the people” were the respected leaders of the community. They were responsible to see that societal standards were upheld. To this end, they often passed judgment on the behavior of others. This was why Jesus told the story he did.
In the story, the actions of both sons offended their father. The first son’s no was a public insult; it shamed his father. But he had a change of heart and then fulfilled his father’s request. The second son was not guilty of public affront, but neither did he accede to his father’s wishes. The first son was a repentant public sinner; the second son appeared to be faithful, but was not.
After the leaders judged in favor of the first son, Jesus placed their decision at their own doorstep. Though not public sinners, they were nonetheless unacceptable. Tax collectors were despised because they collaborated with the occupying Roman government. Prostitutes were denounced because they disregarded the mores of the patriarchal society. But Jesus proclaims that these dishonorable people are more acceptable than the respected leaders. Why? Might it be because of the arrogance of these leaders? They stand in judgment upon others, presuming that their own observance of the Law makes them righteous. What right had Jesus to accuse them? Didn’t he know who they were?
Just what makes one acceptable? Clearly it is not status, for Paul insists that following the example of Jesus, we must be willing to set aside any privilege that might be ours. Nor is it public acceptance, for Jesus tells us that even social honor can be deceiving. Then what is it? Paul maintains that it is humility and service of others; Jesus contends that it is faith and repentance.
No one of us is in a position to assume the moral high ground and, looking down on others, challenge them with “Don’t you know who I am?” We are all weak, limited human beings, who time and again have strayed from the path of righteousness and are in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. As we see in the first reading, God’s mercy and forgiveness will be granted us if we repent of our waywardness. The psalm highlights this same theme: “in your kindness remember me.” We can be assured of this, for the psalm also states that God “guides the humble to justice.”