When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him." -Matthew 21:23-32
Both sons in the parable insult their father. Both sons clearly need a change of mind and heart. But the one that acted, however reluctantly and late, proves to be the righteous one after conquering himself. Like the prostitutes and tax collectors who repent, knowing their need of grace, the first son shows up and does the work and the will of his father.
Pharisees, in the way the word is used in this parable, as hypocritical, self-righteous provocateurs, come in all forms and presences (Meditation One). The masks must come off to find the true self and liberation (Meditation Two). That liberation, however, creates a necessary conflict, in the soul and in the world (Meditation Three).
Ever avoidingly, -Suzanne
Meditation One (Introit) The Pharisee and the Drunk
A drunk man who smelled like beer sat down on a subway next to a priest. The man's tie was stained, his face was plastered with red lipstick, and a half-empty bottle of gin was sticking out of his torn coat pocket. He opened his newspaper and began reading.
After a few minutes the man turned to the priest and asked, 'Say Father, what causes arthritis?'
The priest replies, 'My Son, it's caused by loose living, being with cheap, wicked women, too much alcohol, contempt for your fellow man, sleeping around with prostitutes and lack of a bath.'
The drunk muttered in response, 'Well, I'll be damned,' Then returned to his paper.
The priest, thinking about what he had said, nudged the man and apologized. 'I'm very sorry. I didn't mean to come on so strong. How long have you had arthritis?'
The drunk answered, 'I don't have it, Father. I was just reading here that the Pope does.'
-internet joke making the rounds contributed by (the now late) Jim Guthrie
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. -Matthew 7:21
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:19-20
A Dreaded, Guilt-Provoking Poem from my childhood
Which Loved Her Best?
“I love you, mother,” said little John; then, forgetting his work, his cap went on,
And he was off to the garden swing, Leaving his mother the wood to bring.
“I love you mother,” said rosy Nell; “I love you better than tongue can tell”; Then she teased and pouted full half the day, Till her mother rejoiced when she went to play.
“I love you, mother,” said little Fan; “Today I'll help you all I can; How glad I am that school doesn't keep!” So she rocked the baby till it fell asleep.
Then, stepping softly, she took the broom; And swept the floor, and dusted the room; Busy and happy all day was she, Helpful and cheerful as child could be.
“I love you, mother,” again they said - Three little children going to bed; How do you think that mother guessed Which of them really loved her best?
-Joy Allison (a.k.a. Mary A. Cragin) 19th-20th century Poems for the Very Young Child copyright 1932, Whitman Publishing Co. Racine, Wisconsin (this poetry book belonged to my mother who was seven years old when it was published. She never forced me to read this poem, although I often did, even though it made me feel bad. Obviously, I was not helpful like "little Fan".)
January, The Limbourg Brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures, 1412
Meditation Two (Insight) Your True Self
Now we begin to see why repentance is a uniquely Christian path of liberation from self. All great religious traditions recognize that the deepest desire of the human heart is for freedom from inner oppression. We feel “conditioned”: bound by the chains of our habits and compulsions, our likes and dislikes, our fears and guilt, our inability to love. Our great tragedy is that we so often mistake these habits and compulsions for our true self. … Our false self must die, so that we can find our true self, the self which God meant us to be and which he created in his image and likeness.
-Irma Zaleski b.1931 The Way of Repentance
Meditation Three (Integration) Two Ways of Being Church
It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts. What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine Church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God's wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God's reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws - out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity.
-Oscar Romero 1917-1880 The Violence of Love
The Last Word
Grateful living: an alchemic operation of converting "disgraceful" things into grateful events.
-Raimundo Panikkar 1918-2010
"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go.” (Matthew 21:28-30)
I'm both these sons. All day long.
I'm the second son: “Lord, Lord. Yes, yes. Sure, sure.” I look good. And then I disappear.
And I'm the first son: “Ah, no, thanks, I don't think so. Leave me alone. I'm outta here.” Or, less directly, some spiritual equivalent of “The dog will, I'm sure, eat my homework.” But somehow I rally at the eleventh hour. But not without wasting all that time and energy insulting, procrastinating, doubting, and obstructing.
For the last fifty years or so, the first thing I say every morning is: “Open my lips O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” (Psalm 51:15) Maybe I proclaim God's praise for about five minutes. By the time I'm boiling water for tea, I'm mucking around in the cloudy banality of my soul and psyche exemplified by the second son.
I started a simple gratitude practice a few years ago. As my head hits the pillow at night I name ten things for which I am grateful that day. I'm surprised that I choose such subtle and sensate things: a sudden breeze on my face, the sound of the windchimes outside my window, a joke that made me laugh, someone's smile. If I've been crabby all day, absenting myself from wonder and reverence, I feel especially second son-ish when I offer my gratitude.
“Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." (Matthew 21:31a)
These last moments of the day save me, day after day. Perhaps my murky soul needs an even more frequent practice. Can you see me giggling through the day at this fallen leaf, at that startled squirrel, at the sun's patterns on the kitchen floor? As I write this I realize such a day of gratitude would be like being a pre-verbal child, but with the sorrows and scars of years to lend poignancy to my senses. If every present moment connects to Eternity, I'm not too late, even now.