As most of you know, prior to my being called to pastor our churches, Patricia and I had moved from Chicago to Tucson. I occasionally tease her, “Do you want to move back?” and all she does is wave at me to suggest that if I move back, she is staying here.
One of my frequent comments about Tucson is that, “Between the weather and the scenery — and the friendliness” —Tucson is even friendlier than Pittsburgh, where on the bus route I took to and from work when I first lived there, the Friday night bus out of the city featured a “rear axle club” for which people would bring and share snacks and adult beverages,— “Between the weather and the scenery and the friendliness, I think, everyone would like to live here . . . But there isn’t enough water, so we created Arizona politics to discourage people from coming.”
Well, it isn’t exactly Arizona politics, but this week’s news has been filled with politicians of both of the major national parties in the US trying to walk back statements they have made in the past about the US Supreme Court, with the expected charges of “hypocrisy” added to those of “inconsistency.”
But why should it surprise us that politicians are inconsistent or hypocritical? I won’t go so far as my wife, Patricia, who on our first date commented — and has reminded me ever since, that, “All politicians are crooks,” but I think that to look for honesty or consistency or lack of hypocrisy in a politician is like expecting a gourmet meal in a hospital or on an airplane. One is better off looking elsewhere or for something else.
Yet consistency and honesty are qualities we would like to find, if not in a politician, then in a Christian, and they are more important qualities than is a poetically or dramatically articulate or passionate or moving statement of faith when mere words are the extent of one’s being a Christian.
Mind you, and I want to get this out at the outset: The Christian will not be and can never be “perfect.” As Jesus said to the young lawyer, “Why do you call me ‘good’? God alone is good.” Substitute “perfect,” including in the sense of “always consistent,” and I think Jesus would say the same thing: God alone is always consistent. Any Christian, every Christian, will at times prove to be a hypocrite. A hypocrite?? Yes, by which I mean that we shall not always succeed in living up to the standards that I hope we hold and to which I hope we aspire, but failing always to live up to them as opposed to failing to bother even to hold them is the basis of that awesome bit of eighteenth century French philosophy by De Rochefoucauld, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, which is to say, only a person who has standards, who holds ethics, who seeks to be moral, can be guilty of hypocrisy, which makes me feel the term is seldom appropriate to describe a politician, for whom simple dishonesty or inconsistency is probably more accurate.
Not, mind you, that Jesus would not prefer that politicians — indeed, leaders in general including those of His Church — that leaders be honest and virtuous, and we can see that from the Scriptures, where Jesus is frequently concerned about the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Temple and of the Jewish community.
(By the way, in the “Apochrypha” in some of your Bibles, you will likely find the story of “Susannah and the Elders,” possibly identified simply as part of the book of Daniel, which is a short and delightful account of hypocrisy of some elders.)
The setting of today’s Gospel reading is in fact one in which the chief priests and elders of the Temple, like wily snakes — maybe that is a good way to describe politicians — in which the chief priests and elders of the Temple, like wily snakes, try to trip Jesus by asking from where he gets His authority. They were hoping, I suspect, to trap Him into what they would consider heresy.
This is not the only example in Matthew of a confrontational dialogue, in which the questioner attempts to trap Jesus by asking a question — what today we might call a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question — where one answer would antagonize one part of those listening to the dialogue, and the alternative answer would antagonize the other part of the audience or cause trouble for Jesus in another way, such as, well, my favorite such instance is the question as to whether it was proper for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar, where a “No” could land Jesus in jail, while a “Yes” could alienate His followers; Jesus’ answer — or non answer — to that, which I think we shall again encounter in a few weeks, was simply brilliant.
And as in that “coin” instance, Jesus in fact responds to a question today with a question that reverses the burden of making a difficult choice; today he responded to the question about “authority” with a question about John the Baptizer.
But then he went on to his second question, which challenged the sincerity of the faith of those chief priests and elders, but was probably intended for all those who were listening — and for us, today, — as he told what was really a parable in the form of a question: “Which of the two did the father’s will?”
This question is a bit different from the “coin” question, because it presumed that all who heard it held the Jewish faith, and thus raises the question about one’s being a hypocrite in professing that faith — but not living up to it, or not letting that faith impose a certain consistency on one’s life and behavior.
“Ethics,” someone said, “Is what we do when we think no one is looking.” Being a Christian is how we behave when we imagine that God alone is looking. Being a Christian is not proclaiming Jesus, or rather, not just proclaiming Jesus, for that is indeed part of the charge of being a Christian, it is about proclaiming Jesus and reflecting or displaying Jesus by showing that love of God and of our fellow human beings commanded of us even when there is no one around to praise us for doing so, nor anyone around to shame us for not doing so.
As I once quoted the immortal Eliza Doolittle’s words from a song in “My Fair Lady,” what Jesus is stating even if in the form of a question is, “Don’t talk of love, Show me!”
And of course the point of what Jesus is saying is really quite clear: Professing Christianity, preaching Christianity, is not the same as being a Christian. We must be Christians in what we do and in the way we treat others, not just in the way we talk about things. Living in beautiful homes and driving nice automobiles, and oh how I am enjoying my replacement for the one that deer took out a month ago, eating good food, all those may make me a fine Epicurean, but if I am not generous to those in need and to my church, I am not a Christian, no matter how eloquently I may be able to expound upon words of Scripture. . . Nor can you, simply by being here, make the claim of being a Christian solely on that account, however much of a good start coming to worship might be.
. . . Which is a good jumping off point as we continue to be faced with the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, and as we adapt to restrictions imposed by no one but leaders who are endeavoring to lead as they believe Christ wants them to lead, even if it means going slow as we await for still further reduction in the number of cases of this disease, so that everyone might feel safe leaving his or her home, and venturing out to worship.
For worship is in fact one of the ways we exercise that first great commandment, “Love the Lord your God.” Not that worship is adequate, but rather that it evokes — I hope it evokes — a sense of wonder and appreciation for God and for what God through Christ has done for us, and recharges our spiritual batteries so that we can indeed live out, not only that commandment, but its follow-on and can and do in fact Love our neighbor, not just in words, but in deed. Worship does matter.
But worship is not an end in itself, so we shall continue to strive to seek what it provides as best we can.
I need to add before I close that these resurgences of COVID-19 are real, and it is not only in the US that politicians are blaming one another. As I have said, our oldest granddaughter is in graduate school over in Scotland, where just a few days ago, the universities basically told everyone to stay in their homes, whether dorms or whatever, not to go to restaurants or bars or to the homes of other families. With her first ever boyfriend, and a very serious one at that (and I must add a churchgoer, indeed the organist in their Catholic Church), I am guessing this is hard on my granddaughter.
But love, young love, can survive being shut-in at home, and if it can survive, so also can our love for God, which does not rely on our sitting and holding hands (and, I hope, not too much more than that), but, rather, in our living out our caring for the rest of God’s children.
As we leave today, recall where the two sons asked to work: the vineyard. As I said last week, Scripture, both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus in the Gospels, is fond of referring to the people of Israel, and by extension, to followers of Jesus, as a vineyard. As so many of the parables and teachings of Jesus seek, it is that we who are His vineyard yield good fruit: peace and justice and joy for others of God’s children — for all of God’s childen.
Then, and not by our words, they will know we are Christians, and know from seeing it in us what is meant by being a Christian, by being a Servant of our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.