Monday, 2 October 2017

'With the help of God, I will': Words & actions

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’.

In nomine Patris…

‘Andrew, will you do this for me?’

‘Yes, of course I will.’

You hear the words coming out. Perhaps you really do mean to do what you say you will, and then find that, somehow, it just never happens. Perhaps something deep down tells you that you never intended to do it in the first place, but your words get ahead of your actions.

It’s not that you didn’t want to do it, it’s not even that you consciously decided not to, it just didn’t happen: a sin of omission not commission.

Jesus’ parable of the two sons cuts to the quick of human motivation and action. I wonder if this parable inspired the words of a Book of Common Prayer Confession: ‘we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and done those things we ought not to have done’.

The parable should prompt us to examine our motives and actions.

Of course the parable also points to the possibility that we might equally refuse to do something but then do it. It may be a little perverse, but at least it’s done. This is a time when we ‘may turn from our wickedness and live’.

The irony of the parable is that the unwilling son is found to be willing and the willing is found to be unwilling.

Parables open up possibilities of interpretation. The two sons could represent two aspects of our personality; the bit of us that is willing and the bit of us that is grudging; the bit of us that acts and the bit of us that fails to act.

The two sons could be the Church at times, talking a good Gospel of love, faithfulness and holiness then reining back on that; or at other times, not trumpeting significant acts of mercy and love that we know do happen.

In the context of Matthew’s gospel the target of the parable is thinly veiled. The two sons represent the ‘righteous’ in the guise of the religious authorities – the chief priests and elders - and the ‘sinners’ in the guise of tax collectors and sex-workers: the righteous who say ‘yes we’ll do that’, and don’t; and the sinners who actually do it despite their words.

The two sons were asked to go to work in the vineyard. Herein lies a clue of Jesus’ intent to that first audience. The vineyard is code for Israel. Go and work amongst the people of Israel: recall them to the Covenant; recall them to works of justice, mercy and truth, their first love.

Reflection on the two sons cajoles us into asking ourselves a question: what is my response to God’s call on my life?

Another way Jesus approaches this question is to ask ‘can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ Am I willing to shape my life according to the way of Jesus Christ, the one who walked the way of the cross?

The parable asks us to examine our hearts as followers of the way of Jesus Christ. It asks us to reflect on our deepest desires as children of a loving heavenly Father. This is what St Paul is getting at when he shares with the Christians of Philippi his own search, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’.

The use of the word ‘mind’ implies that this is all in our heads; that it is something we decide through rational processes. But we are so much more than being thinking animals. We are desiring, yearning animals: we desire and yearn for love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness. That is not a mind thing; that is about tapping in to our deepest desires.

Our translation of the Bible lets us down when it says that the son who said ‘I will not go into the vineyard ’changed his mind (verse 29). It’s much deeper than that. A more literal translation is ‘change what one has at heart’. He came to realise what he truly had at heart, which is to do his father’s will, despite his initial words.

A change of heart is so much deeper than a change of mind.

Icon of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
There are uncanny echoes in this parable with another parable involving two sons. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, told in St Luke’s gospel, one son goes off the rails and the other stays dutifully attentive. And there’s a twist.

It is the son who rejected his father who learns true repentance and knows abundant forgiveness by overcoming what he thought he wanted to do through a deep change of heart – conversion of life – and what prompted it was ‘when he came to himself’ (Luke 15.17).

Body and mind and heart came together and he returned to his family home to pursue his deepest desire for love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness.

The dutiful son – the one who stayed around - revealed that his heart had not yet caught up with the joy of the love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness that he had already had.

In St Luke’s gospel Jesus beautifully tells us that ‘it is out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6.45).

Out of the abundance of the heart Jesus speaks: he speaks out of his love for the Father and the Father’s love for him. His speaking, his acting, his mind is all prompted by where his heart is: which is deep in the heart of God. As he reminds us elsewhere, our treasure and our heart are co-located: what we treasure most is deep in our hearts.

This parable of the two sons speaks to our personal discipleship – our ‘yes’ to God – it searches it out and examines it. It also speaks to our commission to go out into vineyard, whose boundaries stretch beyond God’s first-chosen people to the ends of the earth.

This is the Spirit’s gift that our thinking, speaking and acting is shaped by Jesus Christ coming from the very core of our being: our guts; our hearts. That is the Spirit in which we proclaim the Creed, pray the Lord’s Prayer and respond to the dismissal, ‘In the name of Christ. Amen.’ It’s from our guts.

To know the mind of Christ is to be filled with love for the Father, a love poured out in service of the world.

Today let us commit ourselves to take into this new week, both in our words and in our heart, a renewed commitment to Christ: by saying ‘with the help of God, I will’:

Those who are baptized are called to worship and serve God.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you persevere in resisting evil,
and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you proclaim by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all people,
loving your neighbour as yourself?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.

May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith,
that you may be rooted and grounded in love
and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.