Sermons

Sun, Oct 01, 2017

What should we confess?

Series:Sermons

If there's one thing that sets humans apart from all other creatures...

surely...

it's the telling of stories.

Stories constitute a fundamental aspect of each and every culture--

from the most 'primitive' to the most advanced;

from the myths, tales, and legends...

passed from generation to generation around campfires...

to the high-tech, computer-generated imagery of modern movie-making.

Stories shape our consciousness, our values, our beliefs, and our aspirations.

They are told to educate and inspire us... 

at times, to constrain us... 

and, of course, to motivate us.

Stories are powerful...

but, more than that...

stories are, in fact, power.

And any story can be powerful and exert power...

from the most complex, erudite, and elaborate...

to the most simple.

Indeed, the simplest stories are often the most powerful.

And that's certainly true of the parables told by Jesus in the New Testament.

Those parables are everyday stories that convey a deeper meaning--

stories that seek to challenge our taken-for-granteds.

Some, admittedly, are fairly lengthy and elaborate--

like the Parable of the Good Samaritan...

or the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Some, however, are short and pithy--

almost similes or aphorisms--

and yet they pack a punch in their simplicity.

And, while it's not actually labelled as a parable...

the one in this morning's reading from Matthew's Gospel is quite a simple one.

A wealthy man asks his two sons to go and work in his vineyard.

One says, "No"...

but, later, actually does so.

The other says, "Yes"...

but never does.

And the point that Matthew's Jesus makes appears to be quite a simple one...

which could be summed up as, "actions speak louder than words".

In the end, as people of faith...

it's what we do--

not what we say... 

or even what we profess or confess--

that matters.

On the surface, it's a simple and straightforward bit of homespun wisdom.

 

So why is it a parable? 

Where's the deeper meaning?

How does it challenge any taken-for-granteds?

 

In a sense...

here, the parabolic sting-in-the-tail resides not in the parable itself...

but in its immediate application;

when Jesus says to the chief priests and the elders:

"Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you"

Think about it for a minute.

Matthew's Jesus equates the leaders and pillars of the faith with the second son--

the one who did not do what his father wanted--

and he equates tax collectors and prostitutes with the one who did what was right.

Now, bear in mind that--

in first century Israelite society--

tax-collectors were thought to be utterly dishonest...

no better than thieves and burglars...

people who became rich at the expense of others.

In reality, of course, that wasn't generally true.

Most only added a small surcharge to the amounts that they were expected to collect.

And that was all that they received.

Period.

Rather, it was those at the top of the chain who made all of the profits--

namely, the Jerusalem elite...

including, of course, the chief priestly families and the so-called 'elders'--

but who did so a few steps removed, under a cloud of anonymity.

The small, local tax collectors, however, were the public face of the oppressive system.

In most cases, they were simply peasants who had lost their land...

and, perhaps, were not skilled enough--

or lacked the opportunity-- 

to ply a trade.

They did it because they couldn't do anything else.

And yet, they were universally despised.

Similarly, prostitutes were treated with contempt.

They were perceived to be impure, unclean, perverse, and immoral.

And yet, a woman wouldn't have chosen to be a prostitute--

not freely.

Many were, or had been, slaves--

either born into it...

or sold into it--

and it wasn't something about which they had a choice.

And even if they had earned their freedom...

that didn't mean it was something they could just leave behind.

They still had obligations to their former masters--

who, in many cases, were members of the elite...

including, probably, the chief priestly families and the so-called 'elders'.

But within a strongly patriarchal society...

and without family, a husband, or anyone to support her...

what could such a woman do?

It would have been the only skill or trade that she knew.

And yet, they were universally regarded as immoral.

So...

according to Matthew's Jesus...

it's these utterly despised, immoral characters who constitute the kingdom of God...

not the religious pillars of the community.

And, note, there's no recognition or even suggestion that either the tax-collectors...

or the prostitutes...

had changed their occupations...

or, in fact, changed anything else about their lives.

Think about what that means for the way that--

traditionally--

we define religious morality.

To a large extent...

perhaps what we do in our private lives is not as important as we often think...

or as we have been continually told.

Perhaps we can't and shouldn't reduce morality to something personal...

and personalised.

Sure... 

the author claims that the tax-collectors and prostitutes had "believed" in "the way of righteousness" proclaimed by John the Baptist.

But, clearly, that can't be understood primarily in personal and personalised terms.

Indeed, the sense is much more corporate...

and social...

and even structural.

After all, the chief priests and elders led exemplary public and personal lives.

They fasted and prayed.

No doubt they gave all of the required tithes and offerings.

And they didn't overtly engage in questionable activities--

unlike tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other 'sinners'.

But, in reality, they were engaged in exploitation.

They were the ones who benefitted from an unjust and oppressive system;

and they were the ones who maintained the structures of that system.

According to this 'parable'...

then...

it would seem that being faithful to God--

and being part of God's kingdom--

means, primarily, addressing those social and structural 'sins'.

 

Now, of course, we live some two thousand years later...

and we're not in the same position as those criticised here.

But are there not social and structural sins--

injustices...

and exploitative practices--

in which we, too, are at least complicit?

What difference would it make--

for us...

for the Church...

and for our world-- 

if, in our confession, we focused on those...

and repented of them?

 

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