Being and doing: Socratic wisdom on sale in the Plaka in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Church of Ireland Theological Institute
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
5 p.m.: The Eucharist
Collect, Readings and Post-Communion Prayer
for the 15th Sunday after Trinity
Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 78; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Black or white?
Dog or cat?
Land or sea?
Wet bob or dry bob?
Paris or Rome?
Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Wine or beer?
It’s the sort of game we all play in our families at one time or another. I loved playing “Matching Pairs” with my children when they were at the early learning stage.
For adults, there are similar jokes about two kinds of people we compare or contrast:
“There are two types of people: those who divide people into two categories, and those who don’t.”
For the mathematicians among you: “There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”
And for those with a more subtle sense of humour: “There are two types of people in this world: Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.”
This evening’s readings give us contrasting pairs:
In the Old Testament reading (Exodus 17: 1-7), we see contrasts between adults and children; water and wilderness; testing and thirsting; obeying and quarrelling; responsible freedom and slavery without responsibility.
The Psalm (Psalm 78) contrasts images of ancestors and children, day and night, rock and river, and so on.
In our Epistle reading (Philippians 2: 1-13), the Apostle Paul gives us the stark contrasts offered in Christ of slavery and freedom, deity and humanity, fear and trembling, heaven and earth.
This helps us to prepare for the matching pairs or clashing contrasts we find in our Gospel reading (Matthew 21: 23-32).
This reading is set in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s entry in triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his cleansing of the Temple.
When he returns to the Temple the following day, he is confronted by the religious and civic leaders, the guardians of belief and tradition, who challenge and question him about his power and authority.
The “chief priests and the elders of the people” are the leaders in the Temple hierarchy, and also at the apex of society in Jerusalem – questioning Jesus about what gives him authority. In particular, they ask what gives him the right to behave as he does, and especially the right to claim he is acting in God’s name when he is behaving like that .
It is a question that Christ might have expected, under the circumstances. The exchange takes place when he enters the Temple. The day before had been an eventful day: when Christ enters Jerusalem and the crowds hail him as king. He next goes into the Temple courts, overturns the tables and the seats of the money changers and the dove sellers, and speaks about the destruction of the Temple.
The Temple authorities have been offended. Quite naturally, they have to confront him.
Who does he think he is?
What gives him the right to force his way in and stir things up?
What authority has he to behave like this?
But, in a clever manoeuvre, Christ answers their questions by asking his own question.
A clever manoeuvre, indeed. It was acceptable then, but every bar room lawyer knows now that you are not allowed to ask questions that allow only a choice between two convicting answers, loaded questions like: “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Loaded questions are loaded with presuppositions, often with built-in fallacies and false dichotomies.
And the chief priests and elders fall into a trap that every sixth form debater would know how to set and how to escape.
There is a great deal of humour here. Those who are skilled in the Law failed to see the flawed legal trap. And in doing this they display their innate inabilities, their incomparable incompetence, their own failures in judgment.
In this evening’s reading, Christ answers with a two-part question. And once again, he turns the tables on those who confront him. They are taken aback; they are caught in a dilemma. If they answer one way, they are caught out; if they answer the other, they are still caught out. It’s a dichotomy. And either way they cannot win.
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today’ (Matthew 21: 28) ... grapes ripening on the vine in the Hedgehog in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
As they are left mulling this over, Christ tells the parable of two sons and a father. The second dichotomy, the second comparison, the second either/or choice, is posed when Christ tells this parable about a father who sends his two sons, a willing son and an unwilling son, to work in the family vineyard.
It is a sharp contrast between being and doing.
The two sons remind me of the T-short I should have bought a few years ago in the Plaka in Athens that had the words:
“To do is to be” – Socrates
“To be is to do” – Plato
“Do be do be do be do” – Sinatra
The American publisher Cyrus Curtis (1850-1933) once said: “There are two kinds of people who never amount to much: those who cannot do what they are told, and those who can do nothing else.”
But the two sons illustrate a serious dilemma:
Those who respond negatively to what they are asked to do, may eventually do it … and recognise their initial wilfulness.
Those who say they are going to do something they are tasked with, but then refuse to follow-up, to deliver, to do, refuse to recognise their own wilfulness yet persist in their sinfulness.
How often have you responded to people because of their words rather than their deeds and found you have completely misjudged them?
The sons are asked to go to work in the family vineyard.
One son says: “I will not.” In a village culture, in which there is no such thing as personal privacy, this son’s reaction to his father shames the father publicly.
The other son says: “I go, sir.” In public, he appears to be as a good son should be.
But the tables are turned when we learn that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who seems at first to be good and dutiful turns out to be disobedient.
So those who say they are compliant and say they are doing the right thing have headed off to do things their own way, while claiming they are doing what God wants.
On the other hand, Christ tells all present that even prostitutes and tax collectors who appear to be disobedient might actually end up with a true place in the vineyard. In today’s context, who are the people you keep excluding from the kingdom yet are being called in by God?
Paradoxes aside, most of us are not like one son or the other … most of us are like both sons, and wrestle with their responses and their approaches throughout our lives.
Have you ever received an invitation to a party, a book launch, a wedding, with those four little letters at the end: “RSVP”?
Have you ever been one of those people who, anxious not to offend, sends back a reply saying yes, I’ll be there, and then … and then something else crops up, and I fail to turn up.
It has happened to me. I have been invited to parties and book launches, ignored the RSVP line in the bottom corner, and then, at the last moment, turned up. And, I have to confess, I have, at least one or twice, accepted … and not turned up.
On which evening do you think I was most appreciated?
An obvious answer, I think.
It is more forgivable to be socially awkward than to be wilfully rude.
When you are in full-time ministry it will be easy to be like one of these sons.
You may find it difficult to do what God and the Church are calling you to do. If you have been late in testing your vocation, then, like me, you will know what it is to say ‘No’ to God, but eventually answer that RSVP and seek to do his will.
You will find it difficult, you will find it hard, you will even find it boring and tedious, especially when it comes to committees and administration. You will say No countless times, and then realise how worthwhile it all is: labouring in the vineyard should be hard work, but it leads to a good harvest and good wine.
And when you are in full-time ministry it will be easy to say yes, but to continue wilfully to do just what you want to do, persisting in thinking what you want is more important than the promptings of God or even the expectations of the Church.
You may even persist in trying to persuade others, to persuade even yourself, that you are doing God’s will, when you are simply satisfying your own wilfulness.
I have to be careful to distinguish between God’s will and my own will. When they coincide, there are countless blessings. But when they are in conflict, I need to beware of pretending that one is the other, that I am answering the Father’s call and doing his work, when in reality I am doing what I want to do myself, and telling others what I want rather than what God wants.
In the words of the Collect of the Day this evening, I pray that we may all, each one of us, be “found steadfast in faith and active in service.”
In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis claims: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”
And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the Institute Chapel on 1 October 2014.