Sermon Sept 27 – Surprise Endings… (Matt 21:23-32) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever been halfway through a book or a tv show or a movie and you think, I already know how this is going to end? There are actually whole genres of storytelling that are deliberately predicated on providing us with exactly the ending we're expecting. Or exactly the plot point we're expecting. Because it's sort of a human thing to actually LIKE that familiarity.
It's kind of restful and predictable. Formulaic, but we know what to expect. If we turn on Law and Order and there's a group of kids playing in the woods, laughing and shrieking and having a lovely time – they WILL be finding a body. That IS what's going to happen. And no surprises when it does.
The two people who can't stand each other at the beginning of the movie WILL in fact be getting married at the end, and if anyone coughs in a show that takes place in days of yore – best not to get too attached to them. An artistic death from consumption is definitely on the way.
We can laugh at formulaic storytelling, or even put down the book because we already know how it's going to end, but there's nothing actually wrong with it. It just taps into how restful it can be for us to know quite well what's coming, and to lean into that sense of the familiar, and just enjoy the story playing out.
It may not stretch us intellectually, but it's restful. And there's a place for that. Which to some degree, I think, has to be the point of view we decide to take when we think about the passage from Matthew's gospel that we just heard.
Because honestly, if a big part of the point of the parables that Jesus tells his disciples, or the scribes and Pharisees, or the great crowds that follow him as he wanders around preaching and teaching, is supposed to be that there's always kind of surprise hidden in them? Something to discombobulate people, startle them, shake them out of their usual thinking about something?
Then this parable.... seems like really not his best work. Just really not. Halfway through, we probably think we already know how it's going to end, and we're totally right! There's no surprise, there's no discombobulation, it's completely entirely predictable.
A man has two sons. He wants them to go work in the field. One says NO, but then he does, and the other says YES, but then he doesn't. And which one did right by his father? The one who actually went out and did the work.
It's mind-bogglingly obvious. What ultimately matters isn't what we SAY we're going to do, it's what we actually wind up doing. Even the smallest child knows that's true. Because sure, it's not fun when Nan keeps saying there's no time today to bake a cake, but if at suppertime there's suddenly a cake because Nan changed her mind, that's WAY better than being promised cake all day long and then there's no cake.
It's completely obvious. And even for Jesus' listeners that day, the scribes and the Pharisees, for whom the first son telling his father NO might reasonably cause them to become rather horrified – since after all, for them it would be really quite important that a son honour his father and not be disrespectful to him –
EVEN for them, the scribes and Pharisees, it's still completely obvious. What ultimately matters isn't what we SAY we're going to do, it's what we actually wind up doing.
The first son might be 'disrespectful', but in the end he antes up. Meanwhile the second son's full of lovely promises, but in the end they're just empty.
We have a tendency to assume – wrongly -- that the scribes and the Pharisees in the gospel stories are always all about appearances. That there's some kind of great divide between them and the rest of Jesus' followers in this regard – but there isn't.
They recognize here just as easily as we do, just as easily as any child who's hoping for cake, that ultimately the gauge of our 'righteousness' – in terms of doing what God wants us to do, living as God wants us to live – it's the doing. Not whatever chit-chat might have preceded it.
And not only that, but the scribes and the Pharisees recognize here just as easily as we do, just as easily as any child who's hoping for cake, that in fact if obviously it's best to say YES and then do the doing, it's actually better in the end to say NO but then change your mind, than it is to say all the right words and make all the right promises – and then they're all just empty.
That's how little the words matter in the grand scheme of things. The measure of righteousness is what we do. There are no 'gold stars', as it were, for all the right talk and no action. It's as obvious to the scribes and the Pharisees as it is to us.
So it can't possibly be the only point Jesus is trying to make. Not that it's not a good point, and not that any of us can't benefit from a good Jesus reminder that 'saying' all the right things is pretty meaningless if we're not actually 'doing' them.
In fact 'saying' all the right things and then not actually 'doing' them is really a special kind of awful when those things aren't just cake, but they're what's necessary to someone's livelihood or their safety or their fulness of life. I've been a proponent of non-violent resistance my entire life and I expect that I'll die so – but when the emptiness of fine words about all of us being treaty-people, or black lives mattering, or the climate being a priority, or the homeless needing housing causes people to really get ANGRY, I get that. It IS a special kind of awful to have to hear fine words, and then there's no doing.
So it's a useful and good point, the point of this parable. It was a good reminder to the scribes and Pharisees and it's a good reminder to us. What matters isn't what we say. What matters is what we do. The apostle James puts it even more clearly in his letter, later in the New Testament, when he says "if someone comes to you asking for food, don't tell them 'go in peace, stay warm and well-fed' – what good is that?"
Not a whole lot of good at all. It's not that this isn't an important reminder, Jesus' parable, to the scribes and Pharisees and to us. It's just that it's a little obvious. And parables aren't usually obvious. So where's the surprise? Where's the discombobulation?
For the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus actually does make it really clear in his sort of "and the moral of the story is" statement at the very end of the parable. If the measure of righteousness is what we ultimately DO, then the 'tax collectors and sinners' who started by saying NO to God's way but then changed their minds and LIVED God's way deserve a lot more respect than the scribes and Pharisees have been giving them.
This parable is, in other words, Jesus' answer to the boring ridiculous so-called 'insult' he's constantly hearing from all the hyper-religious types: "why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?". It's ridiculous and he wants the scribes and Pharisees to KNOW it's ridiculous. They've responded exactly as he knew they would to his very obvious parable with its very obvious point – and now he uses that reaction to discombobulate them.
Because if they KNOW that it's not about what you say, but it's about what you do, then the presence of these so-called 'sinners' in Jesus' vicinity should be cause for celebration! Right? Why would the scribes and Pharisees imagine it's an insult to him to point them out? It's the actual point!
The gospel is about binding up the broken-hearted and setting people free from the burdens and hurts and mistakes of the past, reminding people they're beloved and precious and worth it and valuable. It's the actual POINT for those whose lives have been most beset by "sin" – by separation from God – to find their way back to begin healing.
That's the discombobulation in this parable for the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus literally uses how obvious it is, and how predicable their response to it is, in order to drive home the ridiculousness of thinking it's somehow an 'insult' to him to say he's surrounded by tax collectors and sinners – when it's the actual opposite.
Jesus' whole mission isn't about keeping good people good – it's about making everybody better. And when that involves the kind of great big shift and changing of mind and changing of ways and changing of life that it does for someone who's been corrupt or greedy or self-absorbed, or even someone who's lost touch with their own value as a human being and they're squandering the life they've been given – well, good grief, even MORE of a celebration.
Which should be obvious to the scribes and Pharisees, shouldn't it. Because after all, all of them knew right away that the first brother who started by saying NO but then changed his mind and came around in the end was the righteous one.
So that's the discombobulation for the scribes and the Pharisees, in this parable. It's Jesus undercutting their boring ridiculous 'insult' about tax collectors and sinners with their own instinctive obvious response to a parable that seems obvious.
The thing is, I don't know how discombobulating that is for us. The obvious point of the obvious parable is a really good point! It's never unhelpful for us to be reminded that what matters isn't our nice words, it's what we actually do. But the discombobulation? I feel like we're reasonably attuned to the notion that none of us is perfect and the point is that we're all trying to be better. And that if one little seriously lost and broken or wrong-doing 'sheep' decides to change its mind and give 'better' a go, so much more reason for celebration.
So instead, I want to close with this. Which in its own way might be a little discombobulating in a world in which I think one of the operative principles that we're most spiritually 'in danger' from is moral relativism. That thing where every stance and every opinion and every action has to somehow be considered worthy of respect and uncritiquable, simply because it's held or done or spoken by someone.
Moral relativism is when we somehow all decide as a society that we really oughtn't to identify something as 'wrong' because that's really 'judgy' or it's 'disrespectful'. And unsurprisingly, as progressive and faithful Christians who are conscious of wanting to dial back the serious legacy of Christian Judgment that the church unleashed upon the world for lo these several millennia – we're kind of part of making this moral relativism happen. We remind ourselves not to be judgy. We talk about respecting others' opinions and stances, agreeing to disagree. We get slain when someone says 'well, that's pretty judgmental for a Christian, whatever happened to judge not lest ye be judged'?
And nothing happened to it. But at the same time – look at this parable. Jesus clearly identifies here what's right and what's wrong. He clearly identifies a moral standard. Against which these two brothers' behaviour is measured, is critiqued... is judged. And if that is in no way some kind of license to bring on the Spanish Inquisition, it SHOULD discombobulate us a bit in the current climate of moral relativism.
Because as people of faith trying to manifest in our living the teachings of Jesus, part of that is actually challenging that moral relativism. By being courageous enough to say out loud that there actually IS a moral standard – in which what's RIGHT is what builds up and increases peace and wholeness and well-being and fulness of life for all people and for creation... and so some things are WRONG.
It may not be the ending of the story that Jesus would have expected – the notion that it might be a little discombobulating for us to be reminded that we get to identify that there's a difference between right and wrong – but even the most familiar and obvious stories where we're absolutely certain we know how it's all going to end can throw in a bit of a twist. Amen.