Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?”
Matthew 21: 28-31
The story we read today that Jesus tells to the chief priests and elders has always been for me a most intimidating one. As I look over my life, it is impossible to count how often I have agreed to do something and then never done it. One of the easiest ways to avoid intimacy and relationship is to be agreeable. Today Jesus reminds us that the call to do God’s will requires far more of us than to be nice and upright. Many years ago my father and I were watching, for only a few minutes to be sure, one of the most famous television evangelists of the time. Within a few minutes of his preaching, my father observed: “This guy smiles too much.” Today Jesus tells us that God’s call to us is not about looking or speaking “the part,” but it is rather about doing God’s will.
Zephaniah writes in today’s first reading of the absence of God among the chosen of the city and the presence of God in the far reaches of the earth among a people ‘humble and lowly.” It is among those who do not even know the Lord’s name that the father’s will is done. The sign of God’s presence among them is their lowliness and humility. God’s will can only be done in humility and truth. As St. Theresa of Avila teaches, humility is “walking in the truth of who we are.”
When I say “yes” and mean “no,” I am refusing to live in the truth of myself and of the moment. I do not want to face the meaning and significance of my “no” in myself and in my relationship to the one to whom I am speaking. Being a nice or a religious person is more important to me than serving the truth of the relationship and the situation. Zephaniah describes the city as “rebellious, polluted, and tyrannical” and its inhabitants as unable to hear God’s voice and accept God’s correction. On the other hand, it is “lowliness and humility,” living, speaking, and acting in the truth that is the soil from which the seed of the kingdom may sprout.
Jesus tells the chief priests and elders that while their mouths are saying “yes” to God, their hearts are closed. Their refusal to listen and to allow themselves to be touched and moved by the presence of Jesus is a refusal to open their hearts and to change their lives. As with every time I appease another rather than encounter her or him, they are keeping Jesus at a distance. It is striking in life how often religion and religious attitudes are really a way of avoiding and escaping the will of God for us and for our world.
Good manners and graceful behavior can be manifestations of God’s life and presence in us when they spring from the soil of truth and humility. As we come to know our own struggles and failings, we grow in compassion for the limits and failings of others. As we come to realize all of what others accept and tolerate in us, we come to more graciously tolerate, accept, and even appreciate the limits and failings of others. On the other hand, politeness and civility, when not an outgrowth of a humble inner life, can be means of evasion, dissociation, and distancing. They can manifest a refusal of relationship and so of potential conversion.
Far too often families, workplaces, communities are characterized by an unspoken resentment, distrust, and aggression. The no’s that are deep within us are left unexpressed and so unreckoned with, and instead there are the forced and frightened smiles of insincere and unmeant yeses. Where there has been a history of forced conformity, there is certain to be a spirit of isolation and resentment.
Today Jesus says to the chief priests and elders, as well as to all preachers and ministers of his gospel and to us, to dare to encounter him in their and our lives as they are, with all of their resistances, and violence, all of those ways that we are not at all nice. We who are in the churches, who believe, and who preach the gospel have much to learn from the lowly and humble who know nothing of it all but do what they can in the truth of who they are. We’d best be less convinced that it is we who bear the presence of God and preserve “the truth,” and instead awaken to our own pettiness and selfishness. For it is in such humble recognition that God will break forth from within us as well.
Enchanted, still in the old forgotten event
A prisoner of love, filthy Ellen inner torment,
Guest Ellen in the dining hall in her body,
Hands beating the air in her enchantment,
Sitting alone, gabbling in her garbled voice
the narrative of the spirits of the unclean.
She is wholly the possessed one of the unclean.
Maybe the spirits came from the river. The enchantment
Entered her, maybe, in the Northeast Kingdom. The torment
A thing of the waters, gratuitous event,
Came up out of the waters and entered her body
And lived in her in torment and cried out in her voice.
It speaks itself over and over again in her voice,
Cursing maybe or not a familiar obscene event
Or only the pure event of original enchantment
From the birth of the river waters, the pure unclean
Rising from the source of things, in a figure of torment
Seeking out Ellen, finding its home in her poor body.
Her body witness is, so also is her voice,
Of torment coming from unknown event;
Unclean is the nature and name of the enchantment.
from David Ferry, The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People