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Scripture Reflection, September 28, What Would Jesus Do?

Scripture Reflection, September 28, What Would Jesus Do?

Scripture Readings:
Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Psalm 25
Philippians 2: 1-11
Matthew 21: 28-32

“WWJD?” “What would Jesus do?” We often see that question inscribed on bracelets, posters, and T-shirts. It is a probing question that is meant to make us consider what it means to imitate Christ in our lives. It is a question that is reminiscent of the parable in this Sunday’s gospel – the parable of “the two sons.” Jesus tells this story in the tense setting of the Jerusalem temple. He has entered the city and has begun to teach in the temple area, only to have his authority openly questioned by the religious leaders. These leaders have become increasingly impatient with the challenges he presents to them. In this story, Jesus contrasts the first son, who initially refuses the request of his father to work in the vineyard but then thinks about it and obeys that request, with the second son, who initially says yes to the request but disobeys his father in the end. Jesus points out that supposedly dishonorable people -- exemplified by tax collectors and prostitutes -- have responded positively to his message about the reign of God. They are like the first son in the story. But respected leaders have proven to be more like the second son, who says all the right things but never follows through in his actions. Their hearts and their minds are closed to God’s will as that divine will is being made manifest through the word and the life of Jesus.

The gospel of Matthew places special emphasis on “doing.” True disciples are those whose actions reflect their words. And so the popular slogan “What would Jesus do?” has some real resonance with this gospel. The difficulty is that sometimes it is not easy to know exactly what Jesus would do in some of the situations that we face in our lives. We face problems and choices that Jesus never encountered. Some of our moral choices are filled with complexity and ambiguity. The moral tradition of the Church is meant to guide us in our decision-making by applying the message of Jesus to current realities. But even with that very rich tradition, all of us face situations that require prolonged reflection and fervent prayer.

It seems to me that we can find a source of encouragement in the “first son” who is described in this gospel parable. When asked by his father to work in the vineyard he first says, “I will not.” But then he thinks further about it, changes his mind and does go out to do the necessary work. As I reflect on this character in the story, it speaks to me about the way in which we sometimes struggle with the will of God at first. Usually we need to stay with our discernment of God’s will for a while and keep asking for the grace to do the right thing, in order to be able to respond positively to what God is asking of us.

Some time ago, I was talking to a man who told me that his young adult son had been dating a young woman for several months. The father had met this woman on several occasions. He seemed to think that she was a fine person. But she was also a person of another race than that of his own family. This father was struggling mightily with this issue. I know him to be a good person and a man of strong faith who sincerely tries to grow in his relationship with Christ. He was doing battle with all kinds of different feelings he was discovering within himself – fears, apprehensions, worries about the opinions of others, latent prejudices. As I listened to him it became clear that he was truly making an effort to discern God’s will in this situation and to respond positively to what God wanted of him. He and his wife were making the effort to be as hospitable as they could to his son’s girlfriend. They had tried to listen to the two of them and to avoid prematurely interjecting their own opinions or advice. When I spoke with him, he was not sure whether or not this relationship would grow more serious. In our conversation, this father told me that he was angry with himself for even having this inner struggle in the first place. He felt that if he were a genuine Christian he would not be grappling with this situation. He would have instant acceptance of the relationship between his son and his girlfriend.

We would like to have instant acceptance of things in our lives that we find difficult. Whether it is a situation like that of this father or making a choice to do what we believe is right in the face of criticism and opposition from others, we would like to be able to move into immediate acceptance. But often the process of discerning and accepting the will of God takes some time and involves a bit of struggle. It is indeed a process. But if we are open to the grace of God in our lives; if we bring our struggles honestly to God in prayer; if we take one step at a time in acting on our Christian instincts, we can be confident that we will be able to do God’s will. Like the first son in Jesus’ parable, we will find our way “out into the vineyard.” God begins with us where we are and knows how to move us forward in this process of discerning and doing his will. The essential thing is for us to remain open to God in our lives, to stay in communication with the Lord and to invite God to lead us and to transform us. Often that happens through small steps rather than giant ones.

As we come to the table of the Lord this Sunday, we bring our struggles and concerns to Christ. May we ask for the grace we need to carry out his will in our lives. We can come to him with confidence, knowing that he is always faithful to us and that he continues to lead us along the way of discipleship.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

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