Our Choices Determine Who We Are

A reflection given at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, Artane, Dublin, Ireland, on September 28, 2014
Scripture: Ezekiel 18:25-28, Philippians 2:1-11, Matthew 21:28-32

Our Lady of Mercy Church, Artane, Dublin

Our Lady of Mercy Church, Artane, Dublin

It is said that actions speak louder than words. It has also been said that our choices determine who we are, or perhaps, who we shall become. Our lessons today highlight this essential spiritual principle. Ezekiel reminds us that when we blame God for our misfortune, often the real cause of our distress lies far closer to home. When we abandon justice to embrace what is evil, common sense dictates that tragedy will soon follow. But those who reject wickedness to do what is right are, in effect, choosing life over death.

Both of these scenarios imply making a significant, life-altering change — not a mere whimsical, spur-of-the-moment choice, but a carefully considered decision. Our Gospel lesson today underlines this point and perhaps even raises the stakes a little bit. Jesus tells us of a father making a request of two sons. He wants them to work in the family vineyard. I think we can assume that neither young man really wants to do his father’s will. The first son is honest about his lack of enthusiasm, although he later decides to go do the work. The other youth, by contrast, says yes to his father’s face but never follows through on the request. Jesus never tells us if the second son had good intentions about doing the work but somehow just never got around to it, or if he actually never meant to do the work at all — in other words, was he guilty of lack of follow-through, or of lying? It doesn’t really matter. Actions speak louder than words. When we say one thing and do another, at the end of the day it is our deeds that seem to matter most.

Jesus tells this story to a specific audience: the chief priests and elders, who were questioning his authority to teach. Typical of Jesus, he refuses to be intimidated by the authorities but he also replies to their challenge by recounting a few parables, of which today’s gospel is the first. When his questioners show that they get the point of the story, Jesus drives the message home by making it clear that no one — not even tax collectors and prostitutes — are beyond the reach of God’s liberating grace, if only they will choose to receive it. Actions speak louder than words. Our choices determine who we are, or perhaps, who we shall become.

Then we turn to today’s New Testament reading, one of the loveliest passages in the entirety of Sacred Scripture. Saint Paul wants his readers to be of the same mind, the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. He calls upon the Philippians — and, by extension, all the faithful — to have the same attitude, or mind, that is ours in Christ Jesus. What does this mean, to have the mind of Christ? Paul tells us, through a lovely hymn: Jesus, though equal with God, emptied himself, humbling himself in human form even to the point of death. The fancy Greek word here is Kenosis — “emptying.” We embrace the mind of Christ in humility and self-emptying.

Since I’ve given you one Greek word this morning, I may as well give you another — Metanoia, which is rendered in English as “repentance,” a word that we often resist as being too churchy, too pious. But Metanoia, repentance, literally means simply “to change your mind” or perhaps even to go beyond your mind — the Greek prefix “meta-” means “beyond.” When we humbly empty our minds (and hearts) of all that stands in the way of love and life, we create the space for the Holy Spirit to bring healing from within. This is the essence of contemplative prayer — a prayer of radical silence, of emptying ourselves for the purpose of receiving God’s grace.

God’s love is a free gift; we cannot earn it. But we choose whether or not to receive it. When we choose the path of Jesus — the path of humility and silence, of self-emptying and trust, of choosing to do the right thing, even late in the game — when, like the Psalmist, we “wait all the day long” for God’s guidance, compassion and mercy — then we know that God’s grace and forgiveness shall determine who we are, and who we shall become.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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