The overriding theme of all of the Mass readings, it seems to me, is “honest sincerity.” In the Gospel account we just heard the younger brother tell his father: “Yes, I’ll go and work” while the older brother said: “No, not me.” Both used words contrary to their actions.
This an age-old story. The dynamic happens in families, between friends, in the work force and in monastic community. The situation Jesus poses is rather straightforward. Two sons are given the same task by their father: one asserts his objection, his intent to disobey right up front, but then in the end obeys his father’s wish. The second son obeys in his words, but disobeys in his actions. For both, what they say with their words is not in their hearts – the head said one thing; the heart another.
The story reminds us that talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. You’ve all heard the phrase: “Don’t just talk the talk; walk the walk.” Be slow to dismiss these truisms. We’ve all been hurt by promises given and then broken. Or, on occasions we have been given words that have hurt us, really hurt us, not because they were nasty but because we relied on them and were later betrayed. Intentions are too often little more than wishful thinking; appearances are deceptive. Being honest and then acting in honesty are sometimes tough things to do. You know where the path of good intentions leads, right?
The question that Jesus poses is pointed and direct: Which son did what the father wanted? Jesus could ask us the same question. Do our words indicate our obedience to God? If not our words, do our actions? God desires a full conversion of heart, that our actions (and our words as well) will give evidence of our love for God. The older brother had no intention of working and had the honesty of saying so. He was wrong, but he was honest. The younger brother was the opposite. He said the expedient thing knowing what his father wanted to hear but he had no integrity.
Yes, talk can be cheap. The younger brother simply didn’t live up to his words; the older brother changed his mind. The older brother had integrity; the younger brother gave valueless words to his father while having no intention at all of working. With which brother do your words or actions identify?
For Benedictines obedience is central – we’ve come to the monastery to hear, to listen, to seek God but to do that we have to be willing to listen and then obey God’s voice as heard in your personal prayer, in the voice of the superior and spiritual guide and in communal discernments and in our interactions with each other. As Benedict describes it, for those who have chosen to live in cenobitic community, our obedience must be open, prompt and positive, (even if it is painful) and given without murmuring.
We would do well to recall both this gospel story, and Benedict’s words about obeying with alacrity when we are asked to do a favor for one of our sisters or a co-worker. Do we mumble OK and then put it on the back burner so far back that the pot boils away and the need goes up in the waves of evaporation? Do you say YES and honestly add “but not right now” and make a sincere effort to perform the action when we said we would? Are you like the son who said “no can do” but later realize your selfish response and go back to do the favor after all? Or, do you render the favor but tell the neighborhood about the unfairness of what you had to do? We know that for Benedict, murmuring was an abomination, anathema, a curse in community and any sign of murmuring was to be censured.
In one of her first books on the Rule, Joan Chittister suggests: “Say to the member who signs up for a task but then complains, please don’t sign up. Kindly give the community the gift of not murmuring about it. The rest of the community will get the job done. Please just stay home and keep a smile on your face. Don’t do the work and then poison the environment of the house with murmuring.”
Oh, you may think: it’s easy for you to talk about obedience – you’re the prioress, who do you have to obey? But, think about it, for the monastic leader, actually, any leader, may have some authority with her position, but the power lies in the hands and will of the membership. Obedience in monastic life is mutual – it springs from the bloom of mutual respect. Without both there is no community – there is just a group of women living under the same roof.
So, what enables us to mature to a higher level of obedience? First how do you know what level of obedience is operating in your life? You may recall Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – moving from obedience for fear of punishment to the highest stage which some never reach and those who do rarely can consistently operate at that level. We are at the level of moral maturity where we cease to fully comprehend what the stage description is talking about. Another insight is how you work on a committee. How we function in community is also based on our level of moral development. How you believe a thing ought to be done will say a great deal about where you are on the scale.
Thankfully for all of us, in life growth is always possible – “It isn’t over, til it’s over!” Another expression may pop to mind: “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings.” It isn’t how we start that matters, it’s how we finish!
~Reflection by S. Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A October 1, 2017
First Reading Ezekiel 18:25-28 Second Reading Philippians 2:1-Be like
Gospel Matthew 21:28-32