Yr. A. Proper 21 ( Phil. 2, 1-13. Matt. 21, 23-32)
While I was flicking through the channels on the TV recently, I caught a bit of a repeat of a programme from years ago, called ‘Supernanny’. It showed a mother struggling to bath her child, and put him to bed, being guided by Jo Frost, aka ‘Supernanny’ in the techniques to make him obey her. It took 45 minutes to get the child undressed and he was merely washed all over with the flannel, because he pulled the plug out of the bath, and refused to get in it. When I stopped watching, he was ranting around his bedroom, while his mother was being instructed to sit quietly in the middle of the room, avoiding eye-contact, and to put him back into bed every time he got out until he fell asleep. The child was 3 years old, and had been having things his way for all his life, and his mother had no idea how to regain authority over him.
The programme caught my attention because earlier in the same day I had been talking to a teacher about how hard it was to teach Reception class children (4 year olds) these days, because they were so used to being indulged at home, that they refused to do anything that didn’t suit them. Both of our readings today are on that same theme of obedience.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges his readers to live in harmony with one another, and advises that the way to do so is to imitate the humility and obedience shown by Jesus Christ.
This passage from Philippians is thought to have been originally an early Christian hymn to Christ; it is a sort of creed in verse. It contains an outline of the whole of Pauline Christian proclamation, talking of Christ’s preexistence, his incarnation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection and ascension to heaven, and the bestowing on him of the divine title of ‘Lord’. All this, the hymn states, has come as a consequence of Jesus’s total obedience to God. Although divine from the beginning, he lives a human life of total humility, the humility of a slave, and through this pioneers the way to the salvation of all.
In relating the celestial glorification of Jesus to his life of humility, Paul reminds the Philippians, (and us) that doctrine is not just about reciting statements; it is about how we live our lives. What we say is important – but what we do is even more important; and what Christians are called to do is to be obedient to God, as Christ was.
That is also the point which Jesus is making in the parable of the two sons. One son says he will help his father to work the family vineyard; but he doesn’t. The other son at first refuses to help; but then he thinks better of it, and goes and works with his father. The moral is obvious, and his hearers can give no other answer to Jesus’ question than to confirm that it is the son who did the work, rather than the one who said he would, who is the favoured one.
This parable appears only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry, and it reflects a problem which Matthew struggles with throughout his Gospel (and which also concerned Paul): after Jesus’ death and the spread of the church into the Gentile world, what is the status of the people of the Old Covenant, the Jews, compared to those of the New Covenant, the Jewish and Gentile Christians?
The parable gives an answer, and it is one that would have been very clear to those from the Jewish religion who heard it. The image of the vineyard was often used to stand for the nation of Israel, for God’s Chosen People. It was the religious Jews who were supposed to do God’s work in this ‘vineyard’. But although in their prayers and their worship they promised to do so, when the time came they failed to turn their promises into action.
It is the outcasts from respectable Jewish society, the thieves and the prostitutes, people who at first glance appear to be disobeying God, who actually are the obedient children, the story says. When the grace of God is revealed to them through the words and actions of John the Baptist and Jesus, they repent – and so become the first to enjoy the Father’s favour. And what goes for the Jewish outcasts also goes for the Gentile converts: anyone who hears the word of God and obeys it will gain entry to the Kingdom.
Knowing what is right is no good on its own; doing right is what is important. As the hymn to Christ in Philippians emphasises, it is only through an attitude of complete humility that any human being can be completely obedient to God.
Of all the virtues, humility is one of the hardest for us to achieve. It is hard for us to practise as individuals and it is even harder for us as part of an organisation. Even the church has failed to live up to its founder’s example. It began as an organisation of equals, operating as the servant of others; but all too soon it was seduced by the ways of the world. It became hierarchical, with some people believing themselves more important than others. It became judgemental, believing that human beings could decide who was acceptable, and who was unacceptable in God’s Kingdom. Its emphasis became distorted; instead of obedience to God, obedience to human rules became the important thing. Like the Scribes and the Pharisees, the Church knew what was right, and said all the right things, but often failed to follow Jesus’ example in what it did.
But throughout the history of the church there have been individuals – some of the great servant saints, like Francis, who have been able to practise humility and obedience, and so serve others as Jesus did; and there have been organisations within the Church, who often inspired periods of reformation by reminding others of how Christians are supposed to operate in the world. Humility is hard for us humans to achieve; but we can do so if we allow ourselves to be filled with the Spirit,the same Spirit that inspired Jesus.
Our readings today offer us an opportunity to reflect again how often and how far we fall short of ‘the mind that was in Christ Jesus’. Humility is not a virtue that is easy to practise in the ‘me’ generation, when we are encouraged to do our own thing, regardless of how it will affect others. Obedience is also not a fashionable virtue today. Of course, there are risks in promising complete obedience to any human person or institution. If the person or institution is evil, that is a route that leads to dictatorship and genocide, as so much of the current news reminds us. But that is not the case in our Christian faith, which teaches obedience to a person who was free of evil, and whose teaching was inspired by a God of goodness and love.
The parable of the two sons invites us to examine the ‘yeses’ and ‘noes’ we say through our lives. We all said ‘yes’ to our Father when we made our commitment in baptism or confirmation. Did we say yes so long ago that we can no longer remember it? Has our initial commitment dulled with time? Has our ‘yes’ mutated into no? Or perhaps, has an initial no changed? In our youthful idealism, we may have rejected the hypocrisy of the Church and vowed to stay independent of the institution? Have we gradually found our way back to God, perhaps through other channels? Can our experience help the Church to find ways to bring other people back to the point where they can say ‘yes’ to God?
One of the most significant (and sacred) activities we humans engage in is decision-making. We constantly shape and reshape our commitments, and so in the Spirit renew the face of the earth. Jesus understood how human responses can change over time and how humans themselves vacillate. Although the parable never tells the father’s answer to his sons, we sense that God as Father looks not at our original responses, but at our actions over time. Just as Jesus could redeem someone from a lifetime of prostitution or dishonest dealings in money, so God refuses to be hung up on our histories.
If, as some scholars believe, this parable formed the nucleus for the story of the prodigal son, we see there how the father rewards both sons–extending great honour to one who has squandered the fortune, and going out of his way to reassure one who seemed to be obeying his father, but whines about another’s blessing. The root word of parable contains the word for “throw”. Like all parables, this story throws a question at us, as it asks how we react to the yes people and no people we meet every day. Do we respond only to the smooth-talkers, and turn from the crotchety or surly types? Do we surround ourselves with only those who make pleasant small talk, or do we rise to the challenge of the awkward squad? Have we ever taken the time to discover the hidden riches of a quiet person? Next time we attend a party or a social event, perhaps we should apply to those we meet the test of Matthew 21.
So, this morning gives us an opportunity to consider some questions: When have I said a “no” to God or another person that actually became a “yes”? When have I said a “yes” to God or another person that has eventually turned into “no”? Who do I obey? How far am I committed to the humility that was central to the mind of Christ Jesus?
The motto of the secondary school I attended was ‘Serve and Obey’. Not a very popular sentiment during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when I was there, and even less popular nowadays. But one which I think, summarises very well the parable and the passage from Philippians we have heard today.