Like all good Vestry meetings, St. Alban’s begins with bible study – using the gospel for the following Sunday. At the last church I served, this morning’s text was the text that was reflected upon at the Vestry meeting. I remember that there was a long, lively discussion on this story of the two sons. Some of us admitted that it is sometimes difficult to sustain our faith in hard times. With all the troubles in the world, where is God’s love and care? Some of us thought that there was a weird break in the middle of the text – first a story about two sons and their father, then a jump to tax collectors and prostitutes. Some of us found some practical advice on parenting – give your kids space and they might actually go and clean up their room.
But no one sat back confused wondering what Jesus was talking about.
It’s a pretty good straightforward story. One that it isn’t hard to identify with. I’m guessing we’ve all been in the role of the father, requesting action and getting lip in return or getting a great response but no action. And I’m sure we’ve all been in the place of both sons – saying no – and then ending up doing the right thing. Or more painful to admit – not backing up our polite responses with real action.
I’m guilty of this. And I’ve got a lot of reasons. If you ask me to do something, I want to make you happy – and the easiest way to do that is to say yes. Also, I want to be a good person – and it looks like the easiest way to do that is to say yes.
But the question really is – do I want most to be a good person – or do I want most to look like a good person? The truth is our culture values looking good, looking young, looking successful, looking happy – more than it values the actual thing itself. But growing into our actual self is what life is about – not what our mother wanted for us, or what our school wanted for us, or what we just thought was supposed to be – but what God intends for us.
There is a great story I’m sure you’ve heard before but it bears frequent repetition:
“When you die, Zushya,” the rabbis taught, “You will not be asked why you were not Moses. You will be asked why you were not Zushya.” The rabbis knew that being yourself is the best gift you have to give to the world. To be other than yourself is to have failed creation.
And that, my friends, is most challenging. Because it means being able to say no – when no is the thing most true to yourself. Or yes, when yes is the thing most true to your self. “Being entirely honest with oneself,” Freud wrote, “is a good exercise.” Because once we admit to ourselves why we are really doing what we are doing, we can choose, if not to leave it, at least to do it for different reasons.
Jesus told the church leaders that they were like whitewashed cemeteries – looking beautiful on the outside, but inside full of moldy dead bones.
In plain old church language – it’s called hypocrisy. A clergy friend said that a parishioner told her that he did not go to church any more, because there were nothing but hypocrites in there. She said she told him there was always room for one more; he didn’t like that. She admitted that she was stepping on his toes a little bit. But really she was just trying to let this man know that it’s only when we can’t admit that we have a bit of lie inside that we are in real trouble. When we don’t know that we cast a shadow that we are in danger. Because the truth is that in all of us there is something to be overcome. As Billy Graham put it “There is a bit of Watergate in all of us.”
But there is hope. The little white lies and the big fat black ones are not the end of the story. The phrase that drew my attention most in this gospel passage was: “changed his mind.” It occurs three times. The first son “changed his mind” and went and did what the father had asked of him. The tax collectors and prostitutes changed their minds and believed. But the church authorities to whom Jesus is speaking, even after they saw, did not “change their minds.”
I was interested in the Greek word that was translated as “changed his mind.” Normally, the Greek word used for changing one’s mind, or repenting is metanoia – meta meaning change and noia meaning mind. But this Gospel text used meta melo mai.
So, what are we most concerned with? With what other people think? The hard truth is we do not become ourselves by being what other people want us to be. When we are driven by the expectations of others, it is, as Anais Nin put it “To live on the reflections of ourselves in the eyes of others.” It is, in other words, not to fully live.
Or are we most concerned about growing up into the person God created us to be? And it is a growing up. At every major stage in life there is a moment when we outgrow what we were. Then, as Joan Chittester writes, I discover that, “I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for.” At that moment, we come to new understandings about life, we make new decisions, we become new again, we grow.
Of course, growing in honesty is never an excuse for being less cultured, less gentle, less holy than we should be. It is not an excuse for brutality or meanness. Growing in honesty means growing more fully into the image of God that is stamped into each one of us. And while that is at times a bumpy road, it is never an excuse for behaving badly towards one another.
Because growing up into our most whole selves means, ultimately, growing into the way of the cross. Into the way of Jesus. Into the way that Paul so eloquently sings about in his letter to the Philippians – the way of humility, the way of service, the way of love. Growing up into our most whole selves means changing what we most care about – changing us from caring most about looking good to caring most about being good.