A couple nights ago, my wife Erin came home seething, sharing the story of a couple of Fox News commentators who had insulted a woman named Mariam Al Mansouri. If you don’t know recognize the name that’s Major Mariam Al Mansourie, the first female fighter pilot of the United Arab Emirates. On Monday, she was a team leader in the air strikes against ISIS, on a mission in an F16.
The two men at Fox News, sitting safe and sound in a studio, had decided that this was hilarious. One made a joke about her anatomy, that I won’t repeat here. Another quipped that while Major Al Mansouri might be able to fly her F16, she probably couldn’t “park it.” When I later watched the clip, no one else chimes in these with two chuckling idiots. But nobody on the show shut them down either. If you heard that joke, would you have laughed behind your hand, or called it out? Would you have thought the comments were offensive putdowns, but said nothing? Put it this way: there is no way they would have made those same jokes about a male U.S. pilot leading a dangerous mission.
That’s really what our gospel is about this morning: do we put our money where are mouths are? Do we do as we say? Do we live as we claim to live?
In the gospel, Jesus offers up a parable to deal with questions about belief. The chief priests and elders of the people, as we’re told, are giving Jesus the gears, challenging his authority. Jesus asks them a simple theological question: “Do you think the baptism of John came from heaven or human origin?” The elders wrestle with this question amongst themselves. What to say, what to say? If they say, the baptism was divine, then Jesus will ask why they didn’t then believe what John said about Jesus? If they say it was of human origin, then the crowd might turn on them. So they came back with no answer at all: We do not know. They took the weak middle road to cover their butts.
Jesus then follows up with an easy parable. The first son refused to work in his father vineyard, but then changes his mind and goes. The second son says he will go, but then does not. Which did the will of the father? The first, of course, the elders answer.
The focus of this parable is usually on the first son – the stand in for the taxpayers and the prostitutes – who sees his error and corrects it in time. It is the fact that the right thing was done in the end that matters more than the place where the person started, or even their first reaction.
But the second may be even more relative to us these days. We live in a world of words, more than any time in history. There is no cost to words. We can read pretty much whatever we want with the click of a button. We can clarify nearly every question with a Google search. (Though I am not vouching for the answer.) And we spout off as much as we choose, on Facebook, Twitter, our own blogs, on comments on other blogs and to other people’s tweets. Our words cost nothing to say. Take little effort to publish. And are easily tossed, then lost, on a mountain of more words. Who can blame us for becoming careless with them?
But all that’s really done, is exposed how often we are also careless with the things we believe, those truths we say we value. We claim to want to be kind, and then we post insults on twitter. We claim to support equality, and then we shut up when insults like the ones on Fox News are made. We speak too much when it doesn’t matter, and we speak too little when it does.
This bar, let me tell you, is especially high for those of us who sit here each Sunday, listening to the words of the gospel, praying for social justice, committing to be forgiving. Words, all of them empty, if the action doesn’t follow.
That is only part of the problem with how the chief priests and elders responded to Jesus question. They were more worried about the reaction their answer would cause, then speaking what they believed. There are many examples in the gospel of Jesus taking questions of faith and wrestling with them, but always when the questioner answered honestly. By saying “we don’t know,” the priests weren’t even true to themselves.
There is no other way around it – we must be willing to confront what contradicts our own beliefs, what is morally wrong, or sexist, or homophobic or racist – with real answers, with clear words. If we truly believe what we pray for each Sunday, we cannot be mute the rest of the week. When I meet young people who are so vocal in their opinions, I am proud of them. But I also worry that they will become adults who learn to be polite when the situation calls for something stronger.
We are powerful tools to be forces of change. We are called to do the labour in God’s vineyard. Don’t sit on your hands. Amen.