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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

A Horribly Good Little Boy

By The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. James’s, Cambridge, MA

Sermon for September 25th 2005

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 + Psalm 25:1-9 + Philippians 2:1-13 + Matthew 21:23-32

I was good little boy. I was a horribly good little boy. Whenever I was asked to do some chore, I never said “yes”, and then refuse to do it. Nor did I ever say “no”, and then change my mind and do what had been asked. In fact, I didn’t always have to be asked. I was so anxious to please. Overly anxious to please. My twin sister was far more spirited. And as I was busily working to please everyone, I was nursing quiet resentments at “all that she got away with”. And I was secretly happy that I was far more likely to gain my mother’s approval than was my twin.

Oh the curse which has been visited upon those of us us who were those good little boys and girls. We go through our lives being so anxious to please, and we hardly know how to say “no”. But sometimes even whilst we are saying “yes”, we nurture resentments against those around us who have learned to say “no”, or don’t seem to be bothered either way. I have lost count of the times when I have been busy tidying a room after a meeting, whilst at the same time, I am getting ticked off at those who are enjoying end of meeting conversations.

So neither son in the parable is my pal. I just don’t get it. I just don’t get saying “yes” and acting “no”. Nor do I get saying “no” and acting “yes”.

But of course, the parable is not about human psychology. Jesus is not a shrink. He is a story teller. And his story is directed at those who believe they have a monopoly on forgiveness. They believe that they have this monopoly, for they have been given the proper authority. “Only those duly authorised” they think, “only those can pronounce forgiveness”. And Jesus has not been duly authorised. He is not a Priest. He is not a Rabbi. He is the Human One who lives and breathes forgiveness to those who believe themselves to be unforgivable.

And Jesus offers forgiveness not because he is the Son of God, but because he is the Son of Man - a.k.a. “The Human One”. He is living the truth that to be truly human is to be generously forgiving. It is only as folks begin to experience his human words of forgiveness, that they begin to see that G-d is just like that. They needed to hear, experience and know human forgiveness, so that they could look through a window into divine forgiveness. “Oh”, they began to understand “G-d is just like that”. G-d does not need or require duly authorised forgivers. G-d simply longs that we should know what it is to be forgiven.

In the context of the Gospel, Jesus, who refuses to be drawn into arguments about authority (surely he is aware of that cul-de-sac!), points out that it is those who know they need to be forgiven (the prostitutes and tax-collectors) will get what they need. They will sail into the Kingdom of Forgiveness. But the religious leaders might not get forgiveness, for they do not believe that they need it.

The good little boys and girls are often so very sure of their goodness that they cannot conceive of the need to be forgiven. And if they, and we, do not know how much we need to be forgiven (by other humans as well as by G-d), then we are likely to become very unforgiving. Or equally dangerously, we will set up our own canons of forgiveness - authorising ourselves to give or withhold pardon. “I’ll forgive him/her if..........”, we often say, and it is in that “if” that we are trapped in our own self-determining authority.

I must add, that within a few generations of the parable, the early Christians, ostensibly followers of Jesus, began to change the meaning of the parable. They began to think that they were the only ones who knew, understood and did the will of the Father, and, by golly, if they had it right, the others must have it wrong. A parable which was meant to deal a crushing blow to monopolies of forgiveness, began to be interpreted as a story about a monopoly on truth. “Thus” some early Christians thought, “we’ve got it right, and therefore they must have it wrong”. The “they” who had got it wrong were of course, the Jews. “And by golly, if they have it wrong, then we must set them right, at any cost”. That “any cost” has led to a shameful Christian vilification, persecution and slaughter of Jews by Christians”.

I believe that all the truth G-d needs me to have is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. At the same time I believe that it is dangerous to think that we ever have any monopolies on truth.

If it is true that G-d has revealed eternal truths to Israel;
and if it is true that G-d hadsrevealed eternal truth in Jesus;
and if it is true that Jews and Christians sometimes find that those truths seem incompatible;
then could it not be true that God has revealed eternal truths in Buddhism, in Islam, and in Hinduism? Might what we see as incompatible be already reconciled in the mind of God?

Or are Christians the only folks with the whole truth of God? If so, which Christians, and which forms of Christianity have it “right”?

Now I am taking you down a path which will suggest that Christians ought to have a certain humility about the truths they hold; a certain reserve which says “we do not know it all”. And I am taking you there for three reasons.

First: Because that the witness of Scripture calls us to have franchises of love and service for the world, not monopolies on truth. How many hours must we spend discussing “truth” - as we avoid the harder tasks of loving God’s world, and serving God’s world. It is possible to be dead right about everything, and to be spiritually dead. We will never tease people into the love of God if we are spiritual cadavers.

Second: Because if we seek truth above love, then it is more than likely that we shall become harsh, judgmental, and unforgiving. I know that from my own experience - I have been there, done that and gotten the ‘T’ shirt. I have spent too much of my life arguing for the authority of scripture, or the authority of the Church. I have spent too little of my life in love for the brothers and sisters. And I know that the strongest and most unequivocal condemnations from the lips of Jesus are directed towards religious leaders who think that they know it all; that they have a monopoly on truth, and a monopoly on forgiveness.

Third: Because if we believe that we know it all, then we shall never question G-d. And that is both dangerous and un-biblical.

To refuse to question G-d is dangerous, for it can lead to a passivity of the spirit which is unable to question other authorities. Have you noticed that it is the Christians with the strongest affirmations about the authority of the bible, or the authority of their pastors; are the same Christians who refuse to question those dogmas of the neo-cons which are ruining America. Isn’t it odd, to say the least, that the same Christians who insist that God created the world in a literal six days, are the same Christians who have the least regard for the stewardship of creation. It was that archetypical neo-con James Watt who said that “after the last tree is chopped down, Jesus will return again”. **
That is a dismal vision, for which we need a truly biblical alternative.

But lest I go further with ad-hominem attacks on the “Christian Right” (and I truly believe that it is a dangerous movement) - I need to remind us that the refusal to question G-d is quite un-biblical. The Holy Scriptures, and in particular the Psalms, are replete with examples of challenging G-d, questioning G-d, demanding explanations of G-d. The scholars call this “the prayer of lament”, and to be sure, it is a form of prayer which needs to be revived.

I, and I hope you, have felt the need to lament in the presence of G-d in these past weeks. The continuing phoney war on terrorism, and the ghastly and altogether un-necessary war in Iraq makes me want to cry out “do something to stop it G-d” - how can you stand by when there is such senseless and needless bloodshed. Do you not care for the families of the more than 1,900 Americans who have died in Iraq? Do you not care for the families of the (perhaps) 100,000 civilians who have been killed in Iraq? And while we are at it G-d, do you not care about the tens of thousands of poor people from New Orleans who have lost everything? Did you not care for those 24 senior citizens who perished in a fiery ‘bus which was supposed to be taking them to safety? I feel like the disciples in the boat with Jesus, who cried out, do you not care that we are perishing?

The stunning silence of God in the face of warfare and tragedy is a challenge to faith at the deepest of levels. And the refusal to challenge God is only possible if we believe that we know it all. Does God truly want us to be good little boys and girls? Docile? Compliant? Uncomplaining? Or does God rejoice when we are sassy?

Might it not be better for us to be like the son who sassed his father by saying “no”, and after having said that “no”, we proceed to do God’s will? In doing that will, we shall be saved from fruitless arguments about authority. We shall have a proper modesty and humility about the truth we know in Jesus Christ. And we shall rejoice in multiple franchises of love and service - wherever we see them.

** Although this has been widely quoted, I was assured after I preached, that James Watt did not say this.

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