Saturday, September 24, 2011

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Between Consistency and Change

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 24:4-9; Philippians 2:1-5; Matthew 21:28-32
Picture: cc USFWS/Southeast

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how much we value consistency over change? If you were running for political office, for example, it would be important for you to show a certain constancy in your views. You wouldn’t want to seem to support the ISA at one moment, and then to call for its abolition at another. People generally don’t vote for a flip-flopper. Someone who keeps changing his/ her mind according to the prevailing political climate. And not just in politics, but also in religion too. In the official documents of our church, for example, we often find reminders that the teaching being presented has been and continues to be the constant position of the church. Consistency good. Change bad. Or so it seems.

This emphasis on consistency is perhaps most keenly felt when we are trying to acquire a skill of some sort. Whether we are learning to sing or to dance, to play a new game or to speak a foreign language, if we want to be any good at it, we need to train regularly. Practice makes perfect. So the saying goes.

But is this completely true? Is consistency always better than change? Does all practice make perfect? I’m reminded of something a martial arts instructor once said: It’s not just practice that makes perfect but correct practice. Makes a lot of sense, don’t you think? It’s only correct practice that truly makes perfect. Consistently wrong practice only makes you... perfectly wrong. And, if this is true, then perhaps change is not so bad after all. How else will we be able to engage consistently in correct practice, if we are not willing even to entertain the possibility that we may be wrong? And then, wherever necessary, to allow ourselves to change?

It is when we keep in mind this key tension between consistency and change that we begin to penetrate more deeply the meaning of the parable in our gospel today. At first glance, the story seems to be about two sons who both change their minds about working in their father’s vineyard. The first boy initially refuses, but then he goes. The second agrees, but then fails to follow through. Both appear to change their minds. The difference between them seems to be only that one finally goes and the other doesn’t.

And yet, it’s important also to note that the two sons in the parable are really meant to refer to two different groups of people in Jesus’ day. Notice how Jesus addresses the parable to the self-righteous chief priests and elders of the people. And notice too how, after telling the parable, Jesus highlights the good example of the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes. Penitent sinners on the one hand, versus stubborn priests on the other. This is the stark contrast that the two sons bring to our attention. And central to this contrast is the fact that, while the penitent sinners are open to acknowledging the error of their ways, and are willing to change their lives, the stubborn priests consistently refuse to do the same. They refuse even to entertain the thought that their religious practice might be nothing more than lip service. That they may not really be cultivating God’s vineyard, but their own. Unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors, who see clearly their own sinfulness, their own need for change, the priests and elders are firmly convinced that they are in the right. So convinced are they, that some of them will even go to the extent of plotting to have Jesus tortured and killed. All for the sake of remaining obstinately constant in their ways.

What do we learn from all this, sisters and brothers, if not that, contrary to popular belief, consistency, especially when it is erroneous, can result in great cruelty and grave injustice? Indeed, in certain cases, it can lead even to murder.

Still, we do need to appreciate that change is difficult. It’s difficult to acknowledge that we may be wrong. Especially for those of us who are Asians, change is difficult because it often entails a loss of face. And not only a loss of face. The process of change is difficult because it often feels as though a part of us is being hollowed out, that something deep within us is dying.

Which is why it is helpful to pay close attention to the rest of our Mass readings today. For here we find the resources we need to change. Our first reading is particularly helpful when we find ourselves reluctant to change for fear of losing face. For the prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God keeps no record of our mistakes. When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live. He has chosen to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live; he shall not die. In the sight of God, there is no loss of face. Only a gaining of grace. The grace of experiencing the unfathomable depths God’s mercy and compassion. The incredible warmth of the Lord’s embrace.

And when we may find ourselves discouraged because of the pain that change often involves. When we may find ourselves reluctant to learn from others. The second reading offers both a helpful method and an inspiring model. First the method: Always consider the other person to be better than yourself. This may seem impractical. Even hypocritical. Surely there are some people who are worse than me. I’m not all that bad. True enough. And yet, isn’t it also true that no matter how much worse than me a person may be, God can still speak to me through him/ her? How open am I to receive God’s communication? And the prime example, the paramount model, of this kind of humble openness to the presence of God in others–this self-effacing willingness to change–is of course the Lord Jesus. He humbled himself even to the extent of accepting death, death on a cross.

Sisters and brothers, it’s hard to deny that much of our religious practice has to do with being consistent. In prayer, as well as in the performance of good deeds. And this is as it should be. But consistency alone can lead also to complacency. Which is why it is helpful for us, at least from time to time, to make the following prayer our own:

Disturb us O Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves;
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little;
when we have arrived in safety because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us O Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess
we have lost our thirst for the water of life;
when having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity;
and in our efforts to build a new earth
have allowed our vision of the New Heaven to grow dim.
Stir us O Lord, to dare more boldly,
to venture on wider seas,
where storms shall show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes

and invited the brave to follow Him.

Sisters and brothers, how is God disturbing our consistency? How might the Lord be challenging us to change today?


  1. In your profound manner, you have given a new meaning to my understanding of the oxymoron – permanent change. What would you suggest a new term for consistent change? Is change the only consistent truth that points the way to our own growth? Can it be otherwise?
    What are the tools – change in perspective, bearing in mind it’s a process, try persistently, pursuing patiently and with lots of practice? Can we be made aware of the need to change, despite the consistencies that surrounds us? How do we reach the realization that unless we can empathize with those around us, we can be consistent; yet we are not what we are called to be … to reach out to one another?
    Often the tinted glass that I habitually wear leads me to the tunnel vision that obstruct what is real and the crucial need to change my view regarding life’s consistencies. I shall take heart what you have shared in your homily, especially this poetic exhortation:
    When having fallen in love with time … we have ceased to dream of eternity.

  2. I understand your point about changing when we are wrong (or possibly wrong). But, Fr Chris, surely, you do not mean to propose changing simply for change's sake? Afterall, the second son also changed his mind, and it was for the worse and not better.

  3. I wondered at mass this evening: Whether change (if desirable) is supposed to be external (i.e. of things outside us), internal (i.e. of our inner thoughts and dispositions) or both?

    For example, I couldn't stand the behavior of someone. Is s/he supposed to change her/his behavior, or am I the one who who should change my expectations and attitude, or both? Realistically, wouldn't it be more achievable for me to first change myself? On the other hand, would I be repressing myself then to a point where I might just explode one day?

  4. Change is the only constant in life. The other certainty is death. Life loses its meaning when our true purpose is obscured and lost through constancy of habit. Not changing leads to death.

    Only in God can we embrace daily changes that lead to more life, freedom and deepening joy for ourselves and others.

    What is often neglected in the loving, dutiful Christian is the knowing and living of God's desire for our authentic joy and delight.

    Our emotional conditioning leads us to constantly please those around us in life long habits of service, without us truly finding freedom to love in the deepest way possible- by heading to the unknown seas of God's deepest desire and widest dream for each of us.

    The son who could say 'No' to the father was enabled to say a free 'Yes' in the end. Only God can move a soul to choose wisely and freely.

    Let us free our children and ourselves to live more authentic lives of change by staying close to the heartbeat of God, and trust in the Perfect Love who drives out all our fears. Shalom.