Proper 21 (26), Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
27 September 2020
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
My great-grand father died when his children were young. They were a family of modest means and dad had started a coal business, as people were heating with coal in those days. So my grandfather and his brothers had to help out to keep the family afloat. The business remained and eventually shifted to the sale of building supplies.
Down the road, my father and his brother entered the business. There was a time when my father built prefab houses, it never took off, but it was something he tried for some time. My father spoke Low German and I remember one day when he came home from having agreed with a local farmer on the purchase of a piece of land where the house was to be built. The fact that they could discuss matters in Low German had played a decisive role in coming to an agreement and the deal was sealed with a handshake. I am sure a legal contract followed later.
That is my only memory of a significant agreement having been sealed with a handshake. They trusted each others’ word.
Words define our relationships with one another. The breakdown of language erodes relationships.
The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, in a chapter on liars and lying, says, “We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word.”1
I have long given up commenting on news stories on websites. It is not a meaningful forum for conversation, in part for it’s brevity, but also because most commenters do not seem interested in a discussion but only in promoting their own point of view, to the detriment of meaningful conversation and to the detriment of truth.
The poet W.H. Auden said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 1970, “As a poet – not as a citizen – there is only one political duty, and that is to defend one’s language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. … ‘Speech is the mother of thought, not the hand-maiden.’ When it is corrupted, people lose faith in what they hear, and that leads to violence. As a citizen obviously one has a host of political duties. The issues are too obvious to go into. But that’s as a citizen. My only duty as a poet is to defend the use of language.”2
In the essay quoted earlier, Montaigne writes, “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.”
That makes lying easy, and it turns out that the bolder the lie, the less likely people are to question it. The problem with this is not only that truth has become a rare commodity but that people no longer trust that someone advocating a different position than their own may be speaking truthfully, and so it leads to a breakup of community and of nation. Nothing remains that could hold us together.
In our own context, those who are quick to invoke “western alienation” are also not interested in the truth, for they don’t raise actual issues that could be debated and solved, but a vaguely defined emotional disposition.
In our Gospel reading Jesus tells a story. The story is introduced with the religious establishment questioning Jesus’ authority. Jesus has just cleansed the temple, and the opponents of Jesus attack his credentials, “By what authority are you doing these things?”
They ask the question because they see their own authority questioned. Jesus answers with a question of his own. Jesus asks about the baptism of John the Baptist. He then tells the story of two brothers whose father asks each of them to go and work in the vineyard. The first son refuses to go but later regrets his answer and goes. The second son promises to go and does not. Jesus asks his opponents which of the two sons did what their father had asked.
The answer is clear. The son who had promised to work in the vineyard did not. In fact his promise made it impossible for the father to make alternate arrangements. The son who had refused to go but changed his mind is the one who did what the father had asked.
The fact that Jesus asks about the performance of certain tasks makes it easy for us to assume that this is a story about doing. As long as we do the right things we’re OK.
But it turns out that this is not a story about doing the right thing. This is not a story about someone who is going to heaven because they were a good man or woman.
This is a story about someone able to change their mind. A story about someone able to regret what they had said and seeking to make amends.
Conversely, the religious leaders refused to answer a question about John the Baptist so they would not have to admit the validity of John’s ministry. While they may not be lying about John, they lie about why they do not answer. Untruthfulness is always the unwillingness to engage with others. Had they acknowledged the authority with which John had acted, their universe would have shifted. And because they are unwilling to even reconsider their own position, Jesus says to them, “I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and sex trade workers believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.”
This brings us back to truthful speech, to the fact that words matter, even though neither brother did as they had said. But the point of the story is that one who did what his father had asked was able to reconsider, was able change, and most importantly understood that the world is bigger than his own interests, desires, and opinions.
The purpose of language is to communicate, to understand, and to connect.
Last Sunday David Suzuki was on the “Ask Anything” segment of Cross-Country Check-Up. He said something I first heard in 1984. He said the earth will survive, but it is us whose existence is threatened by global warming. He talked about various conferences that governments attended or were engaged in, failed carbon commitments and the utter lack of accountability, about how our political system favours thinking in four year cycles, and about how little time we have left to ensure the survival of the human species. Of course, if we do not survive, neither will our economies or anything else dear to us.
Perhaps you have heard that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight. If you remember the smoke that enveloped us a little while ago, and are aware of the breaking off of another ice shelf in the Canadian arctic, you will know why.
Without quick and decisive action, the earth will become uninhabitable for humans. It is the biggest issue facing us today.
Remember, the first brother was able to change his mind.
We must not use language to dig ourselves in, to mislead others, to oppose others, but use language in such a way that it creates a common world, a common reality.
Change is at the heart of the Gospel, it begins with John’s preaching at the Jordan and continues throughout the New Testament. It is called metanoia, repentance, it is made possible by the Holy Spirit.
May it be so.
1Quoted by Massimo Faggioli in “The Corruption of the Word – Will Our Church Fall Victim to Trumpism, Too?,” Commonweal 23 September 2020
2WH Auden: ‘my only duty as a poet is to defend the use of language’ – archive, 1970 , retrieved on 24 September 2020