This parable challenges us to honestly acknowledge the “No” that reflects our tiredness, our fearfulness, our resistance to God’s world view. And then we are challenged and encouraged to find the “Yes” within ourselves – the Yes to God and God’s work in our world. Yes to the upside down inside out values of the kingdom that do not fit easily or well with the priorities of our world. (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 21 . Matthew 21:23-32)
The parable this week is one of those very short apparently simple ones that with time and reflection grow in significance. Matthew’s gospel continues his perennial theme of Israel missing the point, of not heeding the prophets, and of there being a harsh judgement upon those who had the message of life in their midst but did not heed it. Again and again we are reminded that the religiously righteous and smug missed the point and will now miss out on the experience of the kingdom of God whilst the poor and dubious will experience the kingdom.
So what do these ancient words have to say to us today of life? Those of us who are comfortable members of the established church often have reason to squirm in our seats while listening to Matthew. But the parable with its warning also tells us good news that we can change our minds and our ways, that we are not doomed by our first words and actions.
How often do we say Yes to what we think we should, only to find that we do not automatically do what we say, what we know we should and could do and be? The spiritual journey, especially for those who have grown up in the church with the wisdom of Christ always near, often brings us to a spoken Yes, to the knowledge of where and what we should be about. But something then prevents us from doing wholeheartedly that which we know we should. How often do we say with our lips that we believe that God is the creator of all things and then go home and act as though some aspects of creation are more important than others, indeed we often act as though some of creation is dispensable! Or how often do we say that we know that God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone and then watch the evening news unmoved, or even a little triumphant, when people not like us die in famines or wars far from us? Or even more simply how often do we say with our lips that we will pray for each other and then when we say our prayers do not remember many more than our own children and most immediate loved ones? All of us, I suspect, are a little like the second son who says Yes to what we think is right but then do not do the work of our Father.
So what then are we to make of the first son who says No but then goes and does what is right? I think this is where the life and growth opportunity is in this parable.
Of course it is an example of repentance, of turning around on what we have said or done, and of ‘changing our mind’ toward life and love. And I think there is psychological and spiritual truth in saying No – if that is where we are in life – before we are ready to turn toward the Yes. To me this parable describes the process of truth telling to the self. To tell the truth of our resistance, fear, disinterest, laziness – our “No” - when confronted with the call to work. And that something about telling that unattractive truth begins to set us free to find our way to the “Yes” that is within us. I feel encouraged and included by being able to say No – I’m tired, I’ve got too much on my plate already, I am too sad or despairing, I’m afraid of this type of work. (And sometimes our No is holy recognition that something is not for us).
And here our reading from Philippians may point us to how to reach the Yes needed. To be fully present even Jesus the Christ had to empty himself. Meditation, prayer, the great spiritual disciplines of the ages all can assist us to empty ourselves and to find the Yes within.
And so can engagement with social justice – with God’s work of love in action in the world. We can move from No to God’s way of living to Yes when we empty ourselves of the false separations between us and others. When we no longer focus on what is different between us and the imprisoned – those in prisons, detention centres, psychiatric hospitals, re-education centres. When we can look at a prisoner and see ourselves. When we can identify what imprisons us. We begin to empty ourselves of false divisions and protections and become available to others and to God. We begin to move from No to Yes when we no longer focus on the sickness of others – those with disabilities, with disease, with those who have the virus or are at risk of the virus. When we can visit and pray for the sick and no longer see ourselves as different or separate. God is already waiting for us in the prison, in the hospital bed, in the tomb. When we confess the No that rises up in us but then turn up anyway we begin to empty ourselves and make room for God and God’s good priorities and gifts. When we give ourselves over and away we can begin to know ourselves differently. When we allow the least and the unlikely to teach and to give we are beginning to live a Yes to God and all that is loved by God. And the more we attempt to live from a position of Yes then we will find ourselves included in God’s economy of love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.