Are you ever discouraged with yourself or a loved one? Do you ever feel trapped in a situation? Do you ever think that change is impossible? Today’s Scripture readings remind us that with God’s help there is always hope, that it is never too late and that God never gives up on us.
The reading from Ezekiel 18 reflects the situation of ancient Israel’s political and religious leaders in exile in Babylon in the early sixth century B.C. In that community there was much reflection and discussion about the reason for Judah’s defeat and exile and about Israel’s apparently dismal future as a people. Most felt trapped in a fate that they were powerless to change.
In that context the prophet Ezekiel challenged his fellow exiles to recognize that each of them still had the power to choose between right and wrong, between wisdom and folly, between righteousness and wickedness. While acknowledging that this freedom allowed apparently good persons to fall into evil ways, the prophet was especially concerned to hold out the possibility that even a terrible sinner might turn away from wickedness, embrace the way of righteousness and live in accord with God’s will. In effect, Ezekiel was holding out hope to people who felt discouraged and trapped. He was saying to them, “With God it’s never too late.”
The parable of the two sons in Matthew 21 illustrates Ezekiel’s point with reference to the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Both John and Jesus had their greatest success not with the religious elites, like the scribes and Pharisees but with such marginal figures as tax collectors and sinners. In some circles tax collectors were suspected of dishonesty (cheating people) and treason because of their service to the Roman occupiers and their collaborators. Sinners (prostitutes, for example) were those who because of their occupation or lifestyle failed to observe the precepts of the Jewish Law. From the viewpoint of the religious elites, these people looked like hopeless and incorrigible sinners.
Nevertheless, these religiously marginal persons were precisely those who had come to hear and act upon the invitation to God’s kingdom proclaimed by John and Jesus. Like the first son in the parable, these people, while slow to do so at first, were at last turning their lives around in response to the preaching of God’s kingdom by John and Jesus. Like the second son in the parable, the scribes and Pharisees were listening to but not acting on the message. With the parable of the two sons, Jesus was defending his ministry and reminding us that some unlikely persons can and do find new hope and direction through him and his message. In effect, Jesus (like Ezekiel) was saying that with God it is never too late, because God does not give up on us.
The ground of this hope is not only human freedom and will power. Rather, as today’s responsorial psalm (Psalm 25) insists, the real ground of hope is the person and promise of God. This psalm appeals to God’s compassion and mercy. It asks God to show us the way of wisdom and truth, begs God to wipe away our sins and extend mercy to us, and expresses confidence that God will show sinners the way of truth and guide the humble to justice. There is always hope because God is kind and merciful. The refrain (“Remember your mercies, O Lord”) challenges God to live up to God’s reputation as the merciful one.
For Christians, the greatest display of God’s mercy took place in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That display of mercy is celebrated in the early Christian hymn included in today’s reading from Philippians 2: “who, though he was in the form of God….” It celebrates Christ as the Servant of God who humbled himself by becoming one of us (incarnation), suffered death on the cross, was exalted in his resurrection and is celebrated as “Lord” by all creation. This hymn provides a remarkable glimpse into what early Christians believed about Jesus. It also shows how Paul thought that Christ’s example can and should shape the life of every Christian and how sharing in the right relationship with God brought about through Christ (justification) should express itself in the union of minds and hearts and in the humble service of others. By quoting this early hymn to recall God’s greatest act of mercy in the paschal mystery, Paul reminds us why it is never too late with God. For those who may feel discouraged and even trapped, today’s readings offer words of hope.