Sermon for Proper 21
St John's, Centralia--Matthew 22:28-32, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
There's a story—whether it's literally true or not, I don't know—about a rector and his vestry who were working through a period of turbulence in their relationship, something that happens from time to time between rectors and vestries. The priest let out a deep sigh and told them, "If you would just listen to me, you'd know I love you!" To which the senior warden promptly replied, "If we knew you loved us, then we'd listen to you!"
Words and deeds. The rector was saying, "Believe the words I tell you." The vestry was saying, "Tell us by what you do, not by what you say." We might think the vestry to be wiser or more profound in this exchange, but is it? Which of us who are parents have never said to our children, "Do as I say, not as I do?” And on those occasions, don't we find ourselves in the position of the rector in this story?
Words and deeds. When we were baptized, and/or confirmed, and/or present and participating at a baptism or confirmation, we have all said "Yes" to the question, "Will you proclaim by word and example [that is, by deed] the good news of God in Christ?" So which one is more important, proclaiming by word, or proclaiming by deed? Is it a matter of one being a cart and the other and the other a horse, and therefore quite easy to tell which one goes first? Or is it that one is a chicken and the other one an egg, in which case it's a mystery that cannot be explained and done away with quickly and simply? I would vote for the second of these two alternatives, and suggest to you that in telling us the parable of the vineyard owner and his two sons, Jesus is inviting us to explore the mystery of the relationship between our words and our deeds.
The owner of a vineyard, a farmer, approached one of his sons one morning with a request—we have to assume, a fairly routine request, not something that would have caught the young man by surprise. "Son, there's something I need you to do for me today ...”, and he proceeded to describe what he wanted done. The young man complained about the request, and actually said he wasn't going to do it. The father was no doubt disappointed and quite probably angry. But at least he knew where he stood with respect to the job that he needed done, and perhaps even made other plans for its accomplishment. But in reality, the son went ahead anyway and did the job that he'd told his father he wasn't going to do. In his words, son #1 said "No" in his words, but in his actions, he said "Yes."
To the original readers of Matthew's gospel, son #1 was a recognizable symbol. He stood for those who, because of the way they made their living—through tax collection or prostitution—were the lowest of the low in social status. Simply by occupying that status, they were presumed to be cut off from the promises of Israel's covenant with God. They were presumed to have said "No" to God, and in a large measure, this presumption was accurate. But when the harbinger of the Messiah appeared—John the Baptist—with his call for repentance and baptism, these folks were the first ones into the water. They may have originally said "No" to God with their lips, but in stepping into the Jordan river, they said "Yes" by their deed.
In our own setting, the first son stands for those who experience radical or dramatic conversion of life as a result of their encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ. A recent Archbishop of Paris once gave a sermon in Notre Dame cathedral, in which he told of a young man who, having been dared by his friends, entered a confessional booth in that same cathedral and made a fabricated confession. The priest on the other side of the screen was wise enough to discern what was going on, so he said to the young man after he pronounced absolution, "My son, as your penance, I want you to go and kneel right in front of the crucifix on the high altar and say one sentence, 'All this you did for me, and I don't give a damn.'" If there was ever a case of saying "No" with one's lips, this was certainly it! But, still on a dare, the youth mounted the steps leading to the altar, knelt, looked up at the figure of a dying Jesus on the cross, and, with some difficulty, forced the words from his lips. "All this you did for me, and I don't give a damn." At that point, though, he broke down in tears, and his life was never the same again. The archbishop then revealed to his congregation that he was that young man. As a result of his encounter with Jesus the Messiah, present in the sacrament of reconciliation, he did a flip-flop, a 180-degree turnaround. With his lips, he had very clearly said "No", but in his deeds forever after, he said "Yes."
The owner of the vineyard also had something he wanted his other son to do. The son readily agreed, "Sure, dad, no problem; consider it done." But, for one reason or another, which is not revealed to us, he never got around to it, and the job was left undone. In his words, son #2 said "Yes", but in his deeds he said "No."
To the original readers of Matthew's gospel, son #2 was also a readily recognizable symbol. He stood for the established leadership of the Jewish nation. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel had said "Yes" to an everlasting covenant with God, mediated by Moses on Mt Sinai. That covenant was renewed six or seven hundred years later, after the Lord brought the Israelites back to their homeland after being exiled in Babylon. But when John the Baptist came to announce the immanent arrival of the Messiah, the anointed-one of God, he was spurned by the nation's leaders. They refused John's call to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah. In rejecting John's ministry, the leaders of Israel were saying "No" by their deeds to a covenant their ancestors had said "Yes" to with their lips.
In our own setting, the second son of the vineyard owner stands for "token" Christians, those who outwardly profess faith in Christ—they say the creed every Sunday without crossing their fingers—but who then proceed to keep him in a file drawer labeled "religion." They let him out at certain times—Sunday mornings, perhaps —and at special times of the year, and, of course, at times of personal or family crisis. But, otherwise, they keep him securely filed away where he won't have a serious effect on the rest of their lives. With their lips, they say "Yes" to Jesus, but with their deeds they say "No." This is the very definition of hypocrisy, and hypocrisy, we know, is spiritually dangerous for everyone concerned, those on the giving end and those on the receiving end.
Isn't it fair to say that we tend to look with disapproval on the second son, who said he would work in the vineyard, but failed to keep his word, and with approval on the first son, who told his father "No" but ended up working anyway? Indeed, Jesus himself appears to hold him up as the more positive example. But, think about it! How would we feel toward someone who persistently refuses our requests, and then ends up fulfilling them anyway? The first couple of times, we would be surprised and grateful. But after that it would become confusing, and then downright irritating. We would think there is something awfully wrong with the mental health of such an individual.
So our approval of son #1 assumes something very important. It assumes that, somewhere along the route between saying "No" and doing "Yes", he changed his mind. Nobody dragged him against his will to the vineyard and forced him at gunpoint to perform the task his father had asked of him. He chose to do it. By the time he picked up a spade and started turning over dirt, the "No" on his lips had turned into a "Yes", at least to himself, if not to his father. In the end, there was consistency between his words and his deeds. The failure of the second son, then, was not that he didn't do the job his father asked him to do. Son #1, after all, got away with telling dad "No", and there's no reason to think son #2 couldn't have done the same thing. No, his failure was in the lack of consistency between his words and his deeds. It was in saying one thing and doing another. Son #1 was initially guilty of the same offense, but, as we have seen, his flip-flop in deed demands that we assume he also flip-flopped in word.
The ideal that Jesus places before us today is not that of saying Yes to him. Nor is it that of simply doing his will, regardless of what we've said. The ideal that Jesus holds before us is one of consistency between what we say and what we do. It's not a matter of word or deed. It's a matter of word and deed. Of course, this means that we can say "No" under both categories, and this is certainly not what God wants for us, but it may be closer to the ideal than we think! In any case, the good news for us is that Jesus's invitation to work in the vineyard is a continuous one. If we have once refused him, or twice refused him, or any number of times refused his request for us to go work in the vineyard, it is still not too late! It's not too late to both say Yes and do Yes. We have not yet cast our future in stone by what we've said or by what we've done in the past. When we rise from our seats a moment from now to recite the Nicene Creed, we will be saying "Yes" with our lips. Then, when we leave this place, refreshed and empowered by the body and blood of Christ, we have the opportunity yet again to, even if for the first time, say "Yes" in our deeds as well.