Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 1.)

Jack was out hiking alongside a cliff. As he walked along, the beauty of the vast chasm below amazed him.

At one point, he got distracted and slipped. Fear seized him as he fell. He quickly grabbed a branch that was growing out from the side of the cliff and held on for dear life.

He was about ten feet down from the top, with the enormous canyon below. Too frightened to look down, Jack did not see that just below his feet was a ledge in the cliff wall.

Feet dangling as he clung to the branch, he called out, “Help! Is anyone up there?”

A few minutes later, he heard a response. “I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?”

Surprised that the unfamiliar speaker knew his name, Jack replied, “I’m all right, but I need help. Who are you?”

“It’s the Lord,” the voice answered. “I can save you, but I need you to do one thing.”

Loose rocks skittered past Jack, and he trembled in fright. “Save me, Lord! I’ll do anything you ask!”

“Let go of the branch.”

After a few moments’ silence, Jack called out,”Help! Is anyone else up there?”

This story captures in a humorous way the struggle many of us face at times in trusting the Lord. In order for Jack to be saved, he had to let go. Sure, he did not see that shelf in the cliff just below him, but the Lord did. All he had to do was trust in the Lord.

The readings for today’s liturgy deal with our response to the Lord’s call to life. Anytime the Lord asks us to do something or to avoid something, he does so because it is for our well-being. It might be challenging. It might entail letting go of something we are clinging to. Sometimes it might even require giving up something good for something better. Yet whenever the Lord asks us to do something it is for our benefit, to lead us deeper into the life he offers.

Ezekiel presents this message in terms of virtue and sin. The basic message is to turn away from sin and live a virtuous life. Why? Because sin robs one of life. Small sins do it in a small way; large ones do it in a large way.

However, when we turn away from sin to seek goodness, we are drawn more deeply into the life that God gives us. God is merciful, so he will forgive our sins when we make that turn.

The psalm expresses the same reality. The psalmist begins by asking the Lord for guidance: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.”

As the prayer continues, he acknowledges his sinfulness and asks for mercy before concluding with praise: “Good and upright is the Lord; thus he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice and teaches the humble his way.”

Humility is needed for trust and obedience. Being humble before the Lord means recognizing his great desire for our good. It means acknowledging that God opens up the path to life. Our role is to walk on the path he traces.

Such is the lesson of the parable of the two sons. The father asks both sons to go into his vineyard. The first says “no,” but then goes. The second son says “yes,” but does not go. When Jesus asks the crowd which of the two did what the father wanted, the chief priests and elders reply with the obvious answer: “The first.”

It is now that the surprise comes in. Jesus tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before them. Why? Because the tax collectors and prostitutes trusted in the Lord; they turned from their sins and sought to follow his way. They may have said “no” at first, but now they say “yes.” And because they seek to do his will, they are drawn more deeply into the life God offers — the kingdom of God.

Jesus is the perfect example of trust, humility and obedience. In writing to the Philippians, St. Paul cites what some scholars think to be one of the earliest Christian writings, a hymn of praise to God in Christ Jesus. The hymn extols the Jesus for his humble obedience — “even to the point of death, death on a cross.”

Jesus trusted in the Father, and followed the path the Father set — and because of this “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The hymn is a beautiful expression of praise. At the same time, however, St. Paul does not include this in his letter just to be a hymn of praise. He introduces it with the call to the Philippians, and by extension to all of us, to “have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” In other words, “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”

This is the path to life. Jesus trusted and obeyed the Father, and we are to do the same.

The Lord calls us to life. In the story above, Jack clung to the branch because he thought it would save him. But the Lord is the one who saves us by showing us the way.

Today, he asks us to let go of the things that we might cling to, and to humbly trust in him by following his way.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.