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9/26/2002
WORD OF FAITH
Emptied for the Lord
REV. ROGER KARBAN


 

 

The much criticized Israeli practice of destroying the family homes of Palestinian terrorists is parallel to the situation the prophet Ezekiel faces in the first reading (Ez 18: 25-28). He, like Deutero-Isaiah, prophesies during the Babylonian Exile, an event widely interpreted to be Yahweh's punishment on the Chosen People.

Though most Israelites had broken their covenant with God, giving Him the right to withhold protection from them, not everyone was guilty. Some had certainly been faithful to their covenant responsibilities; yet they were still being punished along with the unfaithful.

More than in our culture, ancient communities accepted "corporate responsibility." They were convinced that the minority could be rewarded or punished for the actions of the majority.

Second chances

That's why the passage is so significant. Ezekiel, in the midst of corporate punishment, proclaims Yahweh's option for personal responsibility. According to this plan, each person is to be rewarded or punished according to his or her individual actions, not someone else's.

Not only that, but Yahweh gives persons the right to constantly repent for the good or bad they've done in the past. A single decision doesn't bind someone for life. God always gives people a chance to change and to accept the consequences.

Jesus runs into problems when He tries to concretize Ezekiel's teaching (Mt 21: 29-32). Using John the Baptizer's ministry as an example, He pushes the envelope by reminding His listeners that "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him, but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him." Like the two sons in the parable, no one is locked into their first response to God present and working in their lives.

What's interesting about joining the second reading (Phil 2: 1-11) to the other two is that Paul encourages the Philippians to imitate Jesus' decision-making process. Most of us don't think Jesus really had to make any decisions. We presume He was programmed from all eternity to do and say what He said and did during His earthly ministry.

If Paul believes that, how can he urge his readers to "have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus?" Neither they, nor we, have been eternally programmed.

Emptied

The key to understanding Paul's insight is in the first lines of the ancient Christian hymn he employs to illustrate his point: "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself."

Most of us listen to those words through the filter of John's Gospel prologue, a passage which teaches that Jesus pre-existed as God before He came to earth, a passage written 35 years after Paul's death. Instead of zeroing in on John 1, we should be looking at Genesis 1, written 500 years before Paul's birth. When Paul refers to Jesus' "equality with God," he's probably thinking about Jesus, as a human being, "created in God's image and likeness," not as God pre-existing with God.

In other words, Paul believes that Jesus, like us, had to make real decisions for which he accepted responsibility. What amazes Paul is that at one point in His life, Jesus chose to empty Himself: not to stand on the divine prerogatives all humans share, but to identify with the weakest elements in society, "taking the form of a slave," Only after Jesus makes that choice and suffers the consequences does God "greatly exalt Him."

Such an interpretation helps us understand why Jesus' public ministry didn't start until He was 30. It probably took Him that long to decide to empty Himself completely.

(09-26-02)










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