Leora Weitzman delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on September 25, 2011. The readings that day from the common lectionary were Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Philippians 2:1-13, and Matthew 21:23-32.
I’ve always identified with the first child – the one who resists but ultimately does the right thing. I’ve prided myself on reliability and follow-through. This week, I met my inner second child.
On Monday, I rediscovered that I was scheduled to teach today from 9 to 6. Rediscovered because I did originally agree to the date; I just forgot to enter it in my planner, and in the meantime I committed myself to preaching today.
Discovering that I couldn’t keep both my commitments threw me into the conscious experience of living no after I’d said yes. Many calls and emails later, I’m here until the sign of peace and then scooting out to teach from 10 till 7. In the process, I’ve realized that living no after saying yes doesn’t necessarily indicate hypocrisy or heartlessness. It might indicate a mistake, an emergency – or a simple failure of courage.
How many times have I said I’d tidy my desk, or change my diet, only to keep putting it off? I’ve been the second child all along, as well as the first. And so, perhaps, have many of us. Perhaps this second child is the patron saint of procrastinators.
From an unlikely quarter I hear words of encouragement. Remember the prodigal son? I imagine him comforting this other second child, assuring her that it’s never too late. What we’ve done – or not done – doesn’t matter so much as what we’re doing now. It’s not where we’ve been that matters, but the direction we’re turning in.
That, I think, is a central message of today’s readings. Jesus honors the tax collectors and prostitutes for their change of heart, and Ezekiel delivers the good news that by turning from our past transgressions toward a “new heart and a new spirit,” we “shall surely live and not die.”
That was a radical thing for Ezekiel to say. In his time, people expected to have their transgressions held against them – and their parents’ as well. Even in Jesus’ time, we have disciples asking whether a man born blind was paying for his parents’ sins or for his own (somehow committed before birth).
Ezekiel’s God, however, doesn’t buy into this scorekeeping. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Most High.” At any time we can “turn, then, and live.”
I was puzzled, at first, that people could find this “way of God unfair,” and think it more fair that people be punished even after a change of heart – or rewarded for former righteousness even after turning away from it. Then I thought of how I keep score when I have a rough week that ends in a meltdown. I generally want credit for the time that I handled the stress well. In fact, I want credit so I can buy my way out of paying for the meltdown, which I want to justify and wallow in for a while.
But God isn’t interested in credit or debit for things done in the past. God is interested in the direction we’re turning in, moment to moment to moment. To my wallowing self, this isn’t such good news. I want to hang onto what I’ve got – my mostly good record and my righteousness about it. I might even accuse God of asking too much.
But God isn’t asking us to do anything God hasn’t already done in the person of Christ, who freely emptied himself of all semblance of status and superiority, choosing instead about the lowest-ranking human form available and staying in that form all the way through a shameful, nightmarish death. The willingness to experience the worst of what we may have to face in continuing to turn toward God gives Christ the authority to ask the same of us. The words “easy for him to say” are forever out of our reach.
I once read that authority comes from the willingness to be vulnerable. That certainly seems to fit here. Not only does that willingness give Christ authority, but the absence of that willingness can be seen to deplete the chief priests’ and elders’ authority in today’s Gospel.
The chief priests and elders will be vulnerable if they take a stand on the origin of John’s baptism. We never find out what they actually believe about it in their heart of hearts – and neither do they. The price of playing it safe as they do is the silencing of their own inner authority, the inner voice from which authentic motivation springs. All that’s left to motivate them, once their inner voice is silenced, is fear – fear of losing the outer appearance of the very authority they’ve abdicated.
It’s a good lesson in two kinds of power. The chief priests and elders hang onto power over others, the ability to control by force. Jesus chooses the power of leading by example, of following through at all costs, of living the yes that he said. And in so doing, he gives us all the courage to “turn, then, and live.”