Sermon on 9/27/20: What lurks behind Semantics?

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17 Pentecost 2020 A

Psalm 78:1 – 4, 12 – 16; Exodus 17:1 -7; Philippians 2:1 – 13; Matthew 21:23 – 32

“What do you think?” Matt. 21:28




You say “to-mah-to,” and I say “to-may-to.”  Are we imaging the same object, a vegetable that was once considered poisonous; is our respective image different in nature and, because of their difference, possessing a different value or use; or is there yet still another matter lurking behind our pronunciation?  By what authority and under what circumstance are we authorized to use the one or the other pronunciation?  “What do you think?”

If I were to use the word “agitator,” or better yet “political agitator,” you may think immediately of an individual or of individuals seeking to overthrow a government.  Yet, that is precisely the thought that came to mind as I read the gospel lesson for today.  For me the scenario was clear: Jesus, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, is determined to establish an order, by which a community of equity and fairness and compassion could be established.

His most prominent protagonists or adversaries were Pharisees, the ruling class.   They had branded Jesus as an agitator.  Nothing he did met their approval.  All his successes they saw as a threat to their authority.  And representatives from this ruling class never give up.  They follow Jesus, as fans follow rock stars and use every opportunity, in order to cast doubt on his efforts.  Today’s gospel shows attempts at entrapment.  The Pharisees try to catch Jesus in an unanswerable question.  If he answered, he does his work by authority from God, they can get him for blasphemy, namely using God’s name in vain.  If he claims to do it by his own authority, they can discredit him as not from God.  Either way he loses.

Not to be outsmarted, Jesus answers the question with a question which put the Pharisees right back in the heart of their own “no win” trap.  They realize that they have been bested.  What Jesus said, although without verbalizing it, is “I refuse to play your silly, semantics game.”  And to drive his point home, he tells the story of the two sons.  We know well the answer to that question.  Even the Pharisees got that answer correctly.  But Jesus does not commend them for it.  Instead, in a clever way, with this story Jesus makes clear which kind of son they are.

If I were to treat this parable in a literature seminar on campus, I would ask, ‘has Jesus not dealt with this issue before, using a similar image?’  Have we perhaps not met these same two sons elsewhere, but in a slightly different interaction with the father?  Could this parable not be the prototype, because of its brevity, of the longer ‘parable of the prodigal son?  In the latter, we encounter opposite behavior: a son leaves and does not do what is expected of him by his father.

Lacking from both tales is what I call “filler material.”  Did the father, after celebrating the return of his absent, errant and profligate son, sit down with the lad, in order to outline for him what the ‘going-forward’ attitude and behavior entailed?  Did the father sit down with the slothful, arrogant son who held himself above manual labor in the vineyard and instruct him regarding the ramifications of his behavior or what the ‘going-forward attitude and behavior entailed?   Our Book of Records does not offer us a direct clue, although further reading does instruct us what was expected of each son.

Whether proto-type or whether an expanded, developed version, each parable presents us with a dilemma.  As viewers of this unfolding scene, we are greatly tempted to direct our focus almost entirely on “the son,” the one profligate, the other arrogant.  In so doing, do we not overlook an essential entity, a central character, without which each parable lacks substance?  While it is clear that both parables treat the subject of fulfilling ones obligations, a key question which I would raise in seminar is this: Why is it important that the son fulfills his obligation?  Or stated more bluntly, who/what suffers when neglect gains the upper hand?  There is, is there not, a third, silent partner in the discussion: the vineyard in the one story, or the care for the herd of sheep, both income in-bringing on the surface, but symbolizing the people on a deeper level.  And for Jesus of Nazareth, this voiceless character deserves more than semantics.

Rather, this voiceless character should be imaged in the plural, for they are the object of his Great Project.  In order to achieve his objective, Jesus of Nazareth needed, and needs still, disciples.  In order to combat the social ills of his day, namely disease, ignorance due to illiteracy, and poverty, or to combat the arrogance, scandals and moral neglect of the religious leaders, Jesus needed disciples.  We meet these latter as the “son.”  They it was, who were the recipient of The Great Commission found in the closing words of Matthew’s gospel (28:16 – 20).

They were to go out.  Without them, the vineyard or the sheepfold would fall into further neglect or danger.  The disciples are instructed by the Nazarene to go thither, where the people are to be found, at work, in their neighborhoods, in schools.  Mingle, learn the language, live among them, experience their humanity, for in so doing, the disciples gain their attention and their trust.

The disciples, now the “son” in the plural, are instructed to baptize.  Thereby is baptism more than getting wet, more than a ceremony.  I would suggest that baptism is the total immersion into all of God.  Or restated, in baptism, the baptized is enveloped by all that God has intended for us human types from the beginning.  To be baptized or submerged in God is to recognize that God has accepted us wholly, those whose faith appears never to be shaken or challenged, and those who have doubts.  Both are, through baptism, guaranteed a place in community.

The disciples are to teach.  The disciples, through their own behavior, are to demonstrate what it means to be completely submerged in the essence of God.  Each of us, if I may spring to the present day, has had and may still have, someone whose disciple we are.  There is that special person, whom we imitate via behavior, via our dress, via our thoughts.  Each of us, often subconsciously, has taken on characteristics of that mentor.  Our disciple has taught, and we in turn teach, what it means to be in community, to work towards a common goal, to acknowledge but simultaneously to respect and honor differences.  It takes a disciple to make a disciple.

Serious commitment, not to talking, but to doing on behalf of the kingdom, is what God has called us to be about. As a person of faith, I suggest, that these are the kind of laborers God is seeking, the ones who are living and breathing each day of their lives the kingdom’s values of love and justice.  As a person of faith, I believe further that when we falter in the execution of our duty, God will welcome us back into the fold and have that ‘filler-conversation’ which the father in each parable probably had with his son.

Jesus tells the Pharisees in no uncertain terms that he does not care about their language.  He knows that is not where the truth lies.  He is interested in moving the entire matter out of the realm of verbal entrapment and semantics.  He is interested in moving the matter from their words, to their very lives.  So deals he with us as well.  The question remains as stark, unadorned, and penetrating today, as it did then: which child did the will of the father, and which child are we?   [Amen]

If we were able to celebrate an in-person liturgy—and may that day come soon!—it would be here, that I would let a favorite hymn of mine summarize today’s gospel, better than I may ever do.  I give you the first, third and closing stanzas for your reflection.

Come, labor on. Who dares stand idleharvesting
on the harvest plain, while all around us
waves the golden grain? And to each servant
does the Master say, “Go work today.”

Come, labor on. Away with gloomy
doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but
may do service here: by feeblest agents
may our God fulfill his righteous will.

Come, labor on. No time for rest, till
glows the western sky, till the long shadows
o’er our pathway lie, and a glad sound comes
with the setting sun, “Servants, well done.”

(Hymn 541)


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