Learning to help is part of growing up. It teaches children responsibility and new skills. I was thinking this the other day when I was holding a step ladder against the shed while 8 year old hands manipulated a hammer alarming close to my head. It may have taken longer than if I did it, but I’m proud she can now knock in roofing tacks.
And as they get older, the help that’s offered becomes really useful. Picking, gathering, tidying takes less time than it once did. Garden jobs particularly are good for children. In Biblical times the whole family was involved in farming, there was always something to do and everyone had to lend a hand particularly during the Harvest.
Nowadays farm machinery can do the job of many people – a couple of weeks ago we were spreading gravel over a church car park and it was set to take all day until the farmer turned up. Many hands make light work – especially if one of them is driving a big green bulldozer. Nowadays the village where I live has a population of 850, with maybe a dozen working on the land. In the year 1386 the population was 1500 – almost all of whom would have been peasant farmers.
It was like that in Biblical times, which is why so many of Jesus parables are about farming. When we think of vineyards, like the one that’s mentioned in our gospel reading, I guess we think of wine? But they were important for raisins too – vitamins through the winter months and a food that could be carried around. Any surplus above the family’s needs would be a useful source of income. So the father needs his sons to do their bit.
What follows is a familiar scenario: the workman who turn up keen to get the job, quotes a sensible price in good time, yet when it comes to it just cannot be found. And then on the other hand there’s the child who sulks when asked to help with the washing up, buries his head in the ipad, only to appear suddenly at your side with tea towel in hand.
The moral in the Gospel reading from Matthew 21:23-32 is clear: Actions speak louder than words. We can huff and puff all we like, but we’ll be judged on the basis of what we do.
That’s why Amazon and eBay are so big on. Those little gold stars allow us to cut through the advertisers’ waffle and see if they really deliver. Jesus said ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ – not by their disclaimers! We confess what we believe with our mouths, but you can tell it’s real by how we live our lives.
It’s easy to say that ‘Actions speak louder than Words.’ Hard to put into practice. We have to make choices, be consistent. Recently I’ve been looking at getting a new car. I want to minimise my carbon emissions, I talk about the environment quite a bit. So I have I gone for the smallest car with the least polluting engine? Well not quite. There’s more va va voom then there would be if all I was looking at was green credentials. I can at least take comfort in the fact that newer technology means it’s less damaging than my old Skoda.
With that kind of example, legislation helps. Recycling is a faff if you’re the only one doing it, but if there are good facilities and provision for everyone it becomes second nature. You may have noticed that Wiltshire council have a recycling questionnaire online – do fill it in! Virtue is much easier if everyone’s doing it, if there are incentives to do the right thing.
Or is that just an excuse? The human heart is devious – we can fail to notice our own hypocrisy – when we say one thing but do another. We can become hypocritical when we justify ourselves, or when we give reasons why in our particular case there’s a good exemption. Or sometimes it’s just a lack of self-awareness. I knew someone who was always offering to host a church social, or do some paperwork. But it never happened. I don’t think she did it on purpose, she wasn’t deceiving or trying to look good. I just think she didn’t recognise the gap between what she wanted to do and was actually able to undertake.
Strangely though, the people Jesus takes aim at are the religious leaders. Some of them were Pharisees, who made it their life’s work to create a society where doing the right thing was easier. They laid down clear boundaries between right and wrong, they looked at the grey areas and decided what you could and couldn’t do. The Pharisees really tried to support one another in living out their approach to Jewish faith.
But in the first part of our reading, verses 23-27 they are challenging Jesus. ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ they ask about his teaching in the temple. Not a bad question, although one might ask them the same thing –who gave you authority to judge? Instead Jesus asks them ‘What about John the Baptist? Where did his authority come from?’
Instantly, their hypocrisy is revealed. For, as they say in v.25, ‘if we say from heaven, he will ask ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’ But if we say ‘From Earth’, then all the crowd will stone us, because they believe that John was a prophet’
You see what has happened? Nobody thought to answer with their actual opinion. Maybe they think John the Baptist was a prophet – but if so why didn’t they listen to him? More likely they think John was a liar. If so, say so. But they can’t, because they fear the consequences. Either they will look foolish and concede a debating point to Jesus, or they will lose the support of the crowd. So, lamely, they respond ‘We don’t know’.
How did the chief priests and elders end up like that? What went wrong? The great flaw in their approach is that if you lay down clear boundaries between right and wrong, it’s easy to think that you’ve done your duty. Anyone can legislate for ritual but it’s much harder to legislate for kindness. The Pharisees even gave a tenth of your herbs. That’s an easily measurable outcome – but forgiving someone who sins against you is fuzzier. Compassion isn’t a legal thing.
So outward observance became the principle. Rather like the cornerstone issues in American politics today: many conservative Christians voted for Donald Trump because he held a traditional position on abortion – regardless of anything else he said or did.
Hypocrisy can easily happen when we focus on easily measured outcomes. Or when believing the right thing is more important than living with love and kindness. That is a particular challenge for the church today: our society is extremely sensitive to anything which is perceived as judgemental. No amount of right belief will count for anything in the eyes of the world if the church is experienced as unloving. We have to work very hard to demonstrate the love of God.
But let’s also be clear what hypocrisy is and what it isn’t. Hypocrisy is not falling short, making mistakes. It is not hypocrisy when we say: ‘This is what I believe I am meant to do. I try to do it. I don’t always get it right. But I repent, God forgives me and I try again.’ That’s not hypocrisy. That’s admitting that we fail to live up to our standards. If we recognise our imperfection, if we are open about how we struggle to get it right in a broken world, if we show that we depend on God’s grace then that gets over a truly Christian message about forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus praises the tax collectors and the prostitutes in verse 31. They know their need of God and are returning to him. They are aware of their sin, they’re not trying to cover it up, but they repent and God forgives them. Jesus isn’t saying that God is comfortable with sin, he’s not arguing that these people don’t need to change. After all in the parable of the two sons Jesus did say that the second son had disobeyed his father at first. What Jesus is doing is praising the humility of the tax collector who prayed ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’. God can work with their self-knowledge, their obedience in the end – ultimately that they turn to God because they know their need.
Nonetheless it seems to me that there is a still better way. How often have you had to cancel an event because not enough people have signed up – only to get a flurry of enquiries about tickets? Or have you ever decided that you can’t go out after all, cancelled your table – and the very next minute the babysitter finally sends the text you’d been waiting for? Surely it is best of all to say ‘Yes’ to God – and obey.
Ideally, let’s aim for the outward ‘yes’ and the following action. The willingness to serve God and the ability to do it. Jesus is realistic, he knows that much of the time we can’t manage that, but he tells this parable as an invitation: to repentance, to come back to God and to start again. Amen.