THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING YOUR WORD
Matthew 21: 28-32
The little boy went to his father and asked: “Dad where did we come from?” His father paused in his work and said, “Son, I believe in Evolution. We came from apes. Slowly, over many years of apes dragging their front arms on the ground, they started to walk straighter, that we call upright, and through time we got shorter arms and stronger legs and so we came from apes. Good question, Son!” he said. A bit puzzled by the answer, he went to his mom for confirmation. “Mom, where do you think we came from?” His mother, continuing what she was doing, said, “Why son, ever since I was a little girl I’ve known that God created us. In the beginning God made Adam and Eve and gave us the earth and wanted us to be happy.” “Oh” the boy said. “I’d heard we came from apes.” “Oh,” his mother said, “That’s on your Father’s side of the family.”
Sometimes the messages that children get from adults are confusing and even disappointing. Films often portray troubled and distant teens as products of parents who are immersed in their work, or worse, promise to be at their play, recital, or big game, and then don’t show up. Other times parents may promise a special day, only to back out of it, perhaps because of pressing reasons. But a child doesn’t understand work or health or cost priorities. A child hears “I promise,” or “I will” and believes it until he or she looses trust in the person making the promises. Empty promises then become part of a diseased society, when politicians make empty promises and a city official assures anxious homeowners that a problem will get fixed and it doesn’t. Even teenagers “swear” that the words to a friend are true, but often they aren’t, they just swear for emphasis. The inevitable conclusion from such actions is that one day, no one believes what you say. Your words can’t be trusted. Have you experienced that in your life? I’ve explained that it disappoints and changes children, but, conversely, it can also disappoint and change adults. For preparations for big church events, for example, those who said they would come and help, but didn’t show up, put extra burden on those who are there. People don’t forget that. Conversely, those who say they won’t be there, but later arrive, change the balance of workers and sometimes plan for equipment or food. Sometimes notifying people is called being courteous. In today’s lesson it is the right thing to do:
to give your word and keep your word.
Of course, if there’s a job to be done, the stakes are even higher. On the day that you arrange for a yard of mulch to be dumped in your driveway, you need the family members who promised to be there to show up! If someone shows up to help who at first declined the request, it might bring welcomed relief or might burden those who planned for tools or refreshments. Here’s an example: I know people who arranged with a friend to pick them up from the airport. The plane landed and no one was there to meet them. Fifteen years ago when that happened, fewer people had cell phones. A call to a DOTS transport shuttle brought a paid ride 90 minutes later, just as the arranged for driver arrived, explaining that he got tired and fell asleep. The couple will think twice before depending on him again.
When actions do not match words, things that matter, like integrity, and like dependability, get tainted. The word integrity probably has at its root the Latin tangere, which means “to touch.” One person put it this way: “Can we imagine a person of integrity as a whole (w-h-o-l-e) in which all parts are touching—as someone whose body, mind, heart, and spirit are all aligned with each other, working together, a synergy, giving that person a kind of depth and grounding? Integrity would mean that what we say corresponds with what we inwardly know to be true, that we say what we mean and mean what we say…. [ Listen up Washington, Tallahassee, husbands, wives, parents, children!] Further … we would sense what is and what is not appropriate behavior that allows the whole community of life to flourish.” [Elaine M. Prevallet, TRUTH, from “Weavings,” a Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Volume XXI, Number 3, p. 28]
All the way back in Genesis, Esau is asked to go and hunt for the kind of food his father likes, to come home, and to prepare it. He agrees to do so and comes back from his hunting trip, only to find that while he was away, Jacob and his mother have conspired against him, getting father Isaac to give the first born blessing to younger Jacob, who had done nothing but deceive his father, instead of to Esau who was faithfully carrying out the request. Sometimes we rightly feel outraged, even bitter, when we try to do the right thing, the thing that the two sons in the text failed to do: when you hear a request for you to do a task, and you say yes, and you do the task, sometimes you may feel undervalued or unappreciated. Or someone, by human arrogance, greed, or mistakes, might take credit for your work or make your work difficult. Yes, even when you do what is asked and do it well, there can be hurt and disappointment. You recall that Jesus, in the most intensely anxious time of his life, asked his most trusted apostles to wait while he went and prayed. They agreed to stay awake and wait for him. He prayed for his life, came back, and found them sleeping. He woke them, asking them again to stay awake and wait for him. They agreed to do so. He then went to pray a third time and came back to sleeping apostles again. “Are still sleeping?” he asked. Do you imagine that he was discouraged, or angry or irritated? Say that sentence over in your head the way you think he said it. Perhaps that’s the tone of the father’s voice to both of his sons- neither of whom carried out his wishes. Even disciples fail; and even God gets hurt and angry when our words are not supported by our actions. Even God in Christ expected better from disciples, but amazingly, they got a second and even a third chance. How many chances do you give others to get their assignment right? Jesus expected different actions from his disciples when they gave him their word: the pinnacle of integrity is words matching actions. But if we say “Yes,” to someone and then not do it, the cauldron of disappointment can get mixed with bitterness. If we say no- not just to a friend, but to a parent, a supervisor, or especially a military leader who believes the question is more like an order- then saying “no” produces consequences that could permanent scar your image with that person, even if you said yes later.
Interestingly, today’s lesson has been reported to have been said two different ways. One source, used by the editors of the New English Bible among others, switches the examples around, so that the first son said “I go sir” but did not; the second son said “no” to the request to go, but then he did. In our Bibles the NRSV and even the NIV if you have one, the order is that the first son said “No” but went, the second son said “I go sir” but did not go. In both cases when Jesus asked the chief priests “Which of the two did the will of the father?” their answer in all sources is the same. “The first.” And you and I might ask, “Which first?” And technically we might have a point. But in the big picture, if you were, say, a military commander, would either answer have been appropriate? Saying no to an order? Saying yes and not carrying out the command? The respect that the Bible shows for fathers is such that we can be clear that both answers would have disappointed a father as much as an officer; and both answers disappoint God.
Those who have graduated from DISICPLE I at this church made promises to their classmates that anything for the Lord that was asked of them, they would try to do. It raised their level of commitment for awhile for some, and for a lifetime for others. Saying yes to God through requests from church leaders lifts the spirit of the Body of Christ. How often we want the rule broken that “20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.” Hollow promises are not the answer. Back to the story: who will get into heaven, according to Jesus: the one who says “no” to what has been asked, or the one who says “yes”? You know which one; answering the call the right way makes you a disciple of Jesus Christ. In this text those who answer poorly have other sinners getting in to Heaven before they do. So think about your words; recall your actions. Compare them: Then you will know if Jesus has already prepared a place for you in heaven, or not.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 28, 2008