What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? (Matthew 21:28-31)
I promise you that after this week I will stop starting each sermon with reports on what’s been happening on my Facebook page and Twitter feed. It’s just that it’s been rather intense for me online over the last few weeks, ever since I published my article in support of same-sex marriage and then shared the link on social media.
The article is still getting new shares, and I am still receiving fresh messages from people, coming primarily through comments on my social media feeds, but also through emails, Facebook Messenger messages, text messages, phone calls and, this week, even via ‘snail mail’!
A lot of these messages are positive, of course, tough some of them are quite toxic.
I try not to read through the toxic ones in full, though sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve been warned multiple times now of imminent divine judgement – indeed, that it would have been better had ‘a millstone been tied around my neck and I had been cast into the sea’ (Matthew 18:6). I had another guy recently conclude by saying “I can’t call you Father any more”, which was painful, but kind of curious as the guy is a Muslim and I didn’t think he referred to me that way anyway.
Anyway, what I wanted to say about this was that I had another ‘ah ha’ experience the other day in relation to all this, and it came when I read a rather encouraging comment made by one of my most vocal online antagonists!
I won’t quote my Facebook feed directly as I don’t want to identify the peple involved. Suffice it to say that on this particular Facebook thread, there were two guys on the attack, and one noble woman who was doing her best to plead my case (or at least, the case for marriage equality).
The exchanges were lengthy, passionate, and certainly bordered on abusive, and I think my defender eventually became exasperated, so she tried to wind up the argument by saying, “what I don’t understand is, if you think Father Dave is such a dork [nb. this is not an exact transcription], why are you still following him?” To this my antagonist replied, “but I don’t disrespect Father Dave. I love what he stands for. I just can’t agree with him on this issue.” And I found that really refreshing!
As I said, it was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ experience, as it made me realise that these guys (and so many others like them) are not simply writing me off as an idiot or an infidel. They feel conflicted! They had me down as one of the good guys, and now they’re trying to work out what one of the good guys is doing aligning himself with all those bad guys!
It’s very confronting, isn’t it, when one of our idols falls off his or her pedestal. I’m not suggesting that we all see things in black and white, but we do tend to take certain persons as our archetypes – people who are fundamentally decent, or who are fundamentally flawed – and it’s easier to make sense of the rest of humanity in relation to them, at least until they fall off their pedestals, at which point it becomes much harder to make sense of the world!
Jesus said “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-31)
This short parable from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, is not a particularly well-known one. Even so, if you’re a parent of a teenager, the story may sound familiar. Perhaps one of these sons is your son? Perhaps you gave birth to both of them?
I think most of us start out as parents with high expectations of our children. We don’t anticipate making any of the same mistakes that our parents made, and so we don’t expect our children to be as stubborn and rebellious as we were. Even so, it’s generally just a matter of time before our little angels grow up into persons capable of demonstrating exactly the same attitude on display in today’s parable, where you come to your son with a perfectly reasonable request – ‘hey son, how’s about cleaning your room?’ but, instead of smiling compliance, you get told to ‘take a hike’
I’m using a deliberately fictitious example in this case, as in our house our son keeps his room in immaculate condition. It’s the girls in our family who struggle to defend their domestic environments against the unrelenting inertia towards chaos. That is not to say that our son is therefore easier to deal with and never abusive. Indeed, he’s probably not much better than I was!
The important thing though with the boy in Jesus’ parable is that, despite his obvious disrespect (which would have been a far more serious issue in the minds of those Jesus was speaking to than it is for us), the boy ends up doing what his father asked of him. He does what he’s told – moaning and complaining the whole way through perhaps, but he does it!
Of course, there is a second son in Jesus’ story, and while the second son looks a little less familiar to me, perhaps you’ve met him too? He is full of smiles, says all the right things, and appears to be ever-ready to do his father’s will. The only problem is that when it comes to the crunch, he does nothing! He is all talk!
Jesus asks, ‘which of these two did the will of his father?’ and it is clear enough that Jesus favours the first son – the one who actually does something – as the better of the two, but, in truth, neither of the boys are anything to write home about!
The first son is rude and disrespectful, and is probably the bane of his fathers’ existence, even if he does eventually do as he’s told. The second son appears to be the golden boy – smiling, cheerful, well-dressed and well-mannered. Unfortunately, it’s all an illusion. He’s actually a useless couch potato!
And just in case we weren’t sure who Jesus had in mind when he spoke of these two boys, He concludes this exchange with the ‘chief priests and elders of the people’ (Matthew 21:23) by saying “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)
We should pause here for a moment, for that is a remarkable statement. Jesus says quite clearly to those at the pinnacle of his society that, despite their pious words, these people who are considered the dregs of society are doing a better job, in terms of their spiritual integrity, than are their leaders (both civic and religious)!
it seems clear here that Jesus believed that saying the right thing and sounding right was actually less important than doing the right thing and acting right, and that’s really significant for us Christian types, for we have a proud history that emphasises saying the right thing and sounding right. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole history of the Christian church has been constituted by our ongoing struggle to say the right thing and to sound right.
‘Orthodoxy’ we call it, which is all about having the right language to express the right thoughts, in contrast with what trendy leftists call ‘orthopraxis’ which emphasises doing over thinking. Yet even us trendy leftists like think the right thoughts as we do the right things because that’s what Christians do – we believe – and we believe the right stuff, because a Christian is defined by what they believe.
If that all sounds too obvious, consider or a moment how the faith of the first Christians differed from that of their contemporaries in the Greek and Roman world. I’ve been doing some study of the religious world of the first century recently, and when it comes to what constituted orthodox belief in the ancient Greek and Roman cults that worshipped their great pantheon of gods (quite possibly including the emperor) there really wasn’t any central dogma.
To participate in the ancient Greek or Roman cults, it really didn’t matter much what you believed. What mattered was that you joined in in the feasts and sacrifices, ate appropriate food at appropriate times, and participated in certain rituals. There never was an inquisition in those ancient cults, held to weed out heretics. Indeed, the whole concept of heresy, targeting people who think and say the wrong things, is an essentially Christian concept.
We might ask how this emphasis on thinking and saying the right thing developed in the church, and I think it probably started with our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the greater Jewish community from which we emerged, and then left behind, and then turned on and persecuted! One can only imagine how different the history of the church might have been had we focused our energies on being more like the ill-spoken but nonetheless obedient brother in the parable, rather than his sibling.
Many of you would have seen on YouTube the interview I did earlier this year with Father Toufiq Eid of Maaloula (in Syria). Father Toufic was in Maaloula in October 2013 when Jabhat Al Nusra (the Syrian end of Al Qaeda) invaded the town, beheaded the men at the gate when they refused to convert, and then went on to destroy and steal and murder a great number of residents until the town was eventually liberated by the Syrian Arab Amy six months later.
Father Toufic survived the occupation, of course, as did most of his flock, but they then had to come to terms with the fact that it had been some of the Muslim families in the village who had betrayed them into the hands of Al Qaeda. If you’ve seen the interview, you’ll remember Toufic speaking of the challenge this put before the Christians of Maaloula, to be reconciled with their Muslim neighbours despite the history of betrayal. It is in the context that Toufic says, “the love is more important than the doctrine”
I think this sums up too what we learn from the two brothers – that doing it right is more important than saying it right – that love is more important than doctrine.
In saying all this I am not, of course, wanting to downplay the importance of thinking it right and saying it right! Indeed, it would be a great irony if I was wanting to downplay the significance of speech in a sermon, which is itself a form of speech. On the contrary, I put a lot of time into researching and developing my sermons because I take thinking and speaking very seriously! And there is, of course, normally a very significant relationship between thinking it right and doing it right, despite the example of the two brothers. Normally, when you believe the right thing and say the right thing you will end up doing the right thing, and so saying it right and thinking it right is important. It’s just not as important, in and of itself.
I mentioned at the outset some of the nasty stuff I’ve been bombarded with lately as a result of my article in support of same-sex marriage. Let me balance that report a little as I close by showing you a lovely card I received in the post this week with words “Thank you so much” splashed across the front very colourfully.
The card was sent to me by a friend who I haven’t seen in 25 years. We were part of the same church a long time ago, when she was only a teenager. She wrote to me after all these years to thank me for my article, which she said gave her some peace.
Apparently, my friend’s sister is gay, and it’s evidently been hard for her and for her family in the church they are now involved in, which is heavily pushing the ‘no’ campaign. From subsequent communications, it appears to me that there’s not a lot of love in that community – not for a young gay girl, at any rate – which I think must be the most terrible indictment that can be made against any Christian community, but which is the sort of thing we are always in constant danger of when we let the doctrine become more important than the love!
Let us leave that saga there, along with the little family that we hear about in Jesus story – the Father and his two sons. Neither of those lads had a particularly impressive record as sons, and yet, as we leave them, the father hasn’t disowned either of them. He is still their loving father, and the two boys are still brothers.
You’ll have to forgive me if I seem to be squeezing the parable for more than it’s intended to give here, but I do find it comforting that the father in this story has no ideal children. One child certainly outperforms the other in this story (despite all expectations to the contrary) just as the prostitutes and tax-collectors apparently out-perform their political and religious and leaders, but in the end, the father still has two sons and they are still brothers, and even though the prostitutes and tax-collectors are going into the Kingdom ahead of the hypocrites, there seems to be room for the hypocrites too, even if they are a fair bit further back in the line.
The father has no ideal children. That’s the critical thing in my view, and that, I think, is what my online critics have failed to realise. My conflicted critics – those who thought I was one of the good guys but can’t come to terms with the fact that now I’m behaving like one of the bad guys – need to realise that the father actually has no ideal children, and in the end, I’m not one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. I’m just one of the guys – just one of the Father’s struggling children, doing his best to get it right and to do it right, but often failing.
The father has no perfect children, but I do believe that we, sisters and brothers, have a perfectly loving Heavenly father, and that gives me hope.
first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on October 1st, 2017