Sometimes God appeals to people’s self-interest to get them to do what is right. He uses their self-interest to overcome their self-interest.
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!” They quote 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 the sin belongs to their fathers or mothers, not to them. Therefore, they claim, God should be punishing the parents, not them.
God’s famous reply:
Is it my way that is not fair, house of Israel?
Is it not your ways that are not fair?
Then he admits that punishment does come to those who actually commit the iniquity, not to those who just happen to be born of sinful parents. Therefore, it is your own actions that matter. If you are the one who sins, it is fair that I punish you. If you do virtue, it is fair that I give you life.
Jesus’ parable in the Gospel takes it one step further. We hear about a man being asked by his father to go work in the vineyard. He says, rudely, “I will not.” Surely he would be counted as one of the sinful people described above. Or maybe we should just excuse him: he just had a headache, or was not an early morning person, or just didn't feel like it. But then he changes his mind and goes out, surprisingly, to work hard on the grape vines.
He has a brother. This one says in effect, “Yes, of course I will go out and do your will, to show how much I love you!” Now, isn't this exactly what God had been recommending in the First Reading? The father in the parable was pleased, especially after the brazen reply he had gotten from his first son. Of course, as we know, this second brother changed his mind also and 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 do what he promised. Self-interest did not get him to do good, but only to seem to do good.
So finally God decided to show us motivation that cannot be reduced to self-interest.
He shows us what Christ did (Second Reading). If you want motivation, as well as encouragement, solace in love, participation in the Spirit, compassion, and mercy, look at Christ. Then you 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. Just look at Christ when you are at prayer and at Mass, and let him form you in humility.
Your ultimate self-interest is in loving the other.
* These lines are thought to have been an early Christian hymn which Paul quoted and adapted. Unfortunately, if your parish chooses the “short version” of the Second Reading, this part is omitted. Be sure to spend time with it on this page if that is the case in your parish.
John Foley S. J.
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