Living Out True Values: A Sermon by Mia Benjamin

Mia is a Micah Fellow serving at Grace Church Medford

Matthew 21: 23-33

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus asks the elders a pretty simple question. In fact, he makes it even easier by giving them two answers to choose from. Is John the Baptist a real prophet or is he just a wacko spouting off his own opinion? Does his authority come from Heaven or from human origin? The right answer is already in there—it’s one of the two. So why is the question so hard that the elders refuse to answer?

I like that we get a chance to get inside the Pharisees’ heads in this passage. We get to hear their debate. And it’s not actually about what the right answer is. Instead they’re fighting over which answer has worse consequences for them. If we say, “from heaven,” one of them points out, he will say to us, “why then did you not believe him?” But if we say from human origin, another one counters, the crowd will turn against us. So they end up concluding either choice ends badly for them. They elect to say, “We don’t know.” And Jesus plays their own card right back at them.

I find myself fascinated by the reasons the elders pointed to for not choosing the first answer. I think it is because it is reasoning that I see in myself. A lot of times in life there isn’t a clear right answer. But sometimes I know there is and there is something stopping me from boldly affirming it. I know that if I admit to myself what the right answer is, then I have to accept the consequences of that answer. If the elders admit that John is a true prophet, then they have to answer for why they don’t act like they believe it. If I proclaim to know what the right answer is, I will be challenged, why don’t you do something about it?

The elders don’t want to accept the first answer because they know it means they have to change who they are and how they have been acting. But they can’t very well say the second either, not when it is so widely accepted and understood to be the wrong one. So the elders decide not to answer at all. They don’t know what to say. They are paralyzed and choose to abstain from the vote.

When it comes to social issues, I feel paralyzed a lot. Like every action is wrong and open to criticism. And yet there are right answers and wrong answers. When it comes to racism, I think that we all know the right answer and the wrong answer. We know that the right answer is to love our neighbors for their whole selves, embracing and celebrating their differences. We know that the wrong answer is to segregate and discriminate, acting in fear and hate of the other. When it comes to environmental stewardship, we all know that the right answer is to take care of our earth, to preserve its beauty and resources for generations to come. We all know that the wrong answer is to start forest fires and dump oil into delicate costal habitats. And when it comes to violence, the answer is clearer still. Don’t shoot your neighbor. It seems obvious.

But if we stand up and say we are for all those values, we open ourselves up to being called out for not doing enough, or for doing things that act counter to them. We might get criticized for driving to work instead of biking, or for buying the cheap pair of shoes that came from a sweatshop. Isn’t it just better to say, “I don’t know” and avoid having to answer the question?

But here’s the good news. There’s a second part of the Gospel. Jesus tells a story about two sons, one who said he wouldn’t go to his father’s vineyard but did, and one who said he would, but didn’t. And after the story, Jesus again offers the elders two options. Who did the will of the father, the first son or the second son? It’s a much easier question and the elders choose the right answer right away. Correct, Jesus says. Doing the will of the father wasn’t about the immediate responses the sons gave to the father, it was about whether or not they showed up to work. It wasn’t about whether they proclaimed the right answer to the world, but about whether they ended up in the right place.

And here’s the other thing. We don’t actually know what happens to the first son when he gets to the vineyard. Jesus doesn’t tell us that he worked really hard or did the right thing once he got there. We don’t know if the first son knocked over the plants, tangled up the tractor, and spilled all the wine. It doesn’t matter. It matters that he had the courage to get there.

I don’t think that Jesus is the type of person who gives out points just for showing up—that’s not what I’m trying to say. I think that Jesus isn’t the type of person who awards points at all. The father in the parable doesn’t ask the son to succeed. He doesn’t ask either son to produce a certain amount of wine or reach a particular quota. He just asks them to go and work. Get yourself there and do.

Perhaps for you the consequences of accepting the right answer in your own life means getting on the bus to New York City for the People’s Climate Change March. Perhaps it means standing up as a witness to racial profiling in your own community. Perhaps it means helping the elderly register to vote or driving them to the polls. Perhaps it means heading to the public park to pick up trash. Or maybe accepting the consequences of your beliefs means welcoming your son’s new boyfriend to the Thanksgiving table with open arms. Maybe it means taking on a second job so your kids can have new clothes for school. Maybe it means staying home and finishing that last scholarship application. Maybe it means standing by your husband, reaching out to a neighbor, or putting trust in a stranger. Maybe it means visiting the sick, cooking a meal for your church community, or teaching Sunday School.

But I think the good news in the parable today is that getting to the vineyard happens way before any of those actions. Getting to the vineyard is the step between affirming what the right answer is and getting down to work. Getting to the vineyard really means getting yourself to a place—physical, mental, or emotional—where you are open and willing to accept the consequences of belief. Where you are open to accepting the real penalties for grabbing hold of the right answer. The vineyard isn’t a specific action. It isn’t even a path, as much as I wish it was. The vineyard is a place.

I hope Jesus knows that I wouldn’t really know what to do with myself in a vineyard. I don’t know the first thing about cultivating vines, picking grapes, or stomping around barefoot in a big barrel—or even if people do that anymore. And I don’t think the vineyard is going to be full of clear instructions and right answers, as much as I want it to be. But I don’t think that Jesus expects me to get everything right. I think he is first just asking me to get myself there.

On Sunday [September 20], Emma Watson, a famous actress from the Harry Potter movies, gave a speech to the UN in her capacity as the Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women. In her speech, she called for a united movement for gender equality. Remarkably, Emma Watson empathized with women and men who are shying away from identifying themselves as feminists, even though they strongly believe in equal rights for men and women.

 Sometimes I also really understand that fear. It has a lot to do with the Pharisees’ fear. If I identify as a feminist, will someone come along and demand to know why I’m not actively working to confront sexism every day? Why I’m not living up to what their standards of being a feminist means?

What I liked about Emma’s speech is that she didn’t tell anyone what to do, how to act, or who to identify themselves as. She didn’t command the audience to vote a certain way, or even proclaim themselves to be feminists. She instead invited everyone—women and men—to just get themselves to a place where they have the courage to act for gender equality in their own way. She invited listeners to get themselves to the vineyard, open and willing to work.

There are very real consequences to saying, “I believe” to certain values. There are huge, scary consequences and responsibilities to saying, “I am a Christian.” Sometimes it can be overwhelming to consider what kind of criticism you can open yourself up to by answering even a simple question. 

There is a step between saying, “I am a Christian,” and doing the real work of acting like a Christian. There is a step between saying, “I will go,” and working hard in your father’s vineyard. I don’t think we should ignore how important and difficult that step can be, and I don’t think that Jesus does either. It takes courage to get yourself to the vineyard. It takes courage to accept the fact that you might mess up once you are there, that you may not reach the standard you set for yourself, that you will be criticized no matter what you do.

So my prayer for all of us today is this:

Lord, help us to be brave enough to accept the consequences of grabbing a hold of our true values. Help us be open and willing to work for you and your kingdom on earth. Give us the courage to get ourselves to the vineyard. And Lord, please tell us what to do when we get there.