Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 27.)

The year after the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl, the big question was who was going to be the starting quarterback. I’m sure everyone remembers the year of the championship. Backup quarterback Nick Foles had to fill in for Carson Wentz, who had been injured. Foles led the team all the way and won the MVP that year. Needless to say, that’s a pretty great accomplishment.

So after the season everyone was asking, “Who would it be?” Turns out it was Carson Wentz who was chosen.

What’s even more amazing was the reaction of Nick Foles. Here’s a quote on how he described his willingness to go back to the bench:

“What they saw as a riches-to-rags sports story, I see as part of God’s divine plan. I’ve said all along that my desire is to play for God’s glory, not mine, and that’s exactly what I plan to do. My unique path from backup to Super Bowl MVP to backup again is a powerful message to share with people, and God has given me an ideal platform to do that from. To cheerfully return to a backup role after reaching the pinnacle of the sport contradicts everything the world tells us about success, fame, money and self-worth. To me, it’s a tangible reminder that we are called to humility and to a life of service. …

“Some people might think, ‘I deserve a better deal,’ but it’s not about what I deserve. It’s never been about that. The truth is, I’ve already been given far more than I deserve — a wonderful family, a job I love, grace and forgiveness, great friends, coaches and teammates. Everything I have is a gift from God, and I’m thankful for all of it. I am where I am now because of God’s grace, and I’ll continue to follow wherever he leads.”

When I read this story, the word that came to mind was “humility.” Foles was humble. Anyone in that situation might be tempted with pride, yet he was able to face the situation (which must have involved great disappointment) with humility and to move forward continuing to use his talents and gifts. The way he describes his relationship with God gives this story a powerful context. His faith encouraged humility, and that humility gave him the strength to joyfully continue his path.

Humility is an important aspect of life, and it is not unique to Christianity. Many ancient philosophers as well as our Jewish ancestors recognized its importance in living a good life.

For Christians, Jesus is the exemplar of humility. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul inserts a great hymn of praise and faith in Jesus. The passage is part of today’s second reading. In it, Paul stresses the humility of Christ, who was “obedient even to death on a cross.”

Jesus’ humility begins with his incarnation. God himself chooses to become human so that the human might become divine. God so loves us that he lowers himself; Creator takes the form of creature. He created in love for no other reason than to love. Jesus shows us the path of love which is obedience. Humility is one of the virtues that strengthens us to be obedient, and obedience helps us to love as we have been loved.

The core meaning of obedience is “listening.” In our fiercely independent culture, many times “obedience” is seen not only as a bad word, but a bad concept. It is seen as something that limits, inhibits or restricts. But there is another way of looking at obedience. The word “obedience” has at its core “listening.” Listening (as differentiated from hearing) entails a full engagement of the other.

Having completed a good conversation, many people will notice a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment or even joy when their partner in the conversation was listening. Many times, in these cases, one might refer to the other as a “good listener.” Many times, we want to go back to that person and have another conversation. Why? Not only because they give us attention, but because they care enough to engage and to try to understand. We feel respected, understood and sometimes even loved.

Such is the obedience between the Son and the Father in the divine life. Jesus listens to the Father and trusts in the Father. He takes up the cross, trusting that the Father will deliver him. Throughout the Gospels, we hear of Jesus not only speaking about the Father and their relationship: we see his “listening” is his prayer and his conduct. His obedience is complete. While his life has many trials, which culminate in his passion and death, he is joyful, content, happy. His love never diminishes; in fact, its manifestation grows as he journeys to Calvary. Obedience frees him to love.

The parable Jesus uses in today’s Gospel passage calls us to reflect on obedience and humility, for the two are very much tied together, almost to the point of being two sides of a coin. The two sons are each asked the same task. The first says “yes” with his mouth but “no” with his heart. The second says “no” but then says “yes” with his action. Its obvious from the parable that, in the end, the second son does the right thing.

It’s worth looking a little closer at the second son’s response for some insights into humility and obedience. The son listens to the father’s request. He hears it and acknowledges the request. Something however is urging him to resist. It could be laziness. It could be sloth. It could be he has other plans. It could be that he is tired. It could be that he has other commitments. It could be that he just doesn’t want to do it. It could be any number of things. All these can be seen as temptations, placing a stumbling block between father and son.

Jesus uses the parables to engage us the listeners in active thought. Perhaps he wants us to see ourselves in the parable. There are so many things in life that might distract us from the Father or deter us from listening to him. Maybe we face temptations like the second son. Maybe the first son faced those temptations as well. The key here is that the second son, even though he may have “given in” to the temptation, whatever it may have been, in the end he turns back and “listens.” He is obedient, and his obedience is rewarded.

Jesus applies the figure of the second son to “prostitutes and tax collectors.” Why? Because they were the ones who listened to him. They listened and found mercy, life and freedom. They listened and found love.

The call to humility and obedience is an invitation to love — first to an experience of being loved, which is followed by the call to love both God and neighbor. St. Paul’s introduction to the hymn sets the context for the loving as he urges: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”

In the parable the father invites his sons to “go out and work in the vineyard today.” This too is the invitation to love. God is love. He continually invites us, calling us to listen. The “listening” opens the door to love.

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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.