Spirituality of the Readings
God at times appeals to our self-interest in order to get us to do what is right. In other words he uses our self-interest to reach beyond our self-interest, so to speak.
We are shown this in the First Reading, where we find a straight-out argument between the people and God. The people claim that “The Lord’s way is not fair!” Earlier they had quoted the famous saying, “The parents eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ez 18:2). Apparently they are arguing that sin should be attributed to their fathers or mothers, but not to them. Therefore God is punishing them unjustly.
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair,
are not your ways unfair?
He shows them that punishment comes to those who actually commit an iniquity, not to those who just happen to be born of the parents of the iniquity. “It is your own actions that matter. If you sin, it is fair that I punish you. If you do virtue, it is fair that I give you life.”
Jesus takes it one step further in the Gospel. We hear a parable about a man being asked by his father to go work in the vineyard. The man says, rudely, “I will not.” Surely he would be counted as one of the sinful people described above. Or maybe he just had a headache, or was not a morning person, or whatever. But when his father leaves the house, this one changes his mind and goes out to work hard on the grape vines.
He has a brother. The brother says in effect, “Yes, of course I will go out and do your will!” Isn't this exactly what God had been telling the people in the First Reading? I am sure the father in this parable was pleased, especially after the rude reply he had gotten from his other son. Of course, as we know, this brother too changed his mind. He did not bother to go at all.
This second brother’s selfish interests were served by saying “yes, yes” to his father. It made him look good. But he did not trouble himself to actually do what he promised. Self-interest did not get him to do good, but only to seem to do good.
St. Paul says to look at what Christ did (Second Reading) if we want true motivation, as well as encouragement, solace, participation in the Spirit, compassion, and mercy. Then we will not act out of selfishness, but will serve others humbly, as he did. This is the ultimate motivation in Christianity.
Have in you the same attitude
that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this God greatly exalted him.*
Self-interested motives are not the only ones. Let us just look at Christ—when we are at prayer and at Mass—and let him form us in humility.
Let God make us good.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University