Asking Ourselves the Real Question
By Clara D. Thompson
Most of us love a good story. We grew up with tales of meatballs falling from the sky, princesses and heroes, little boys who never wanted to grow up, and fairy godmothers with their magical wands. Young children like to hear the story of the day they were born, while our children who have grown up return home, in part, to hear the familiar stories of the family told and retold again. My husband Paul is the consummate story teller in our family. Our children were raised with his tales of Captain Bluebeard, the rather ill-kempt and gruff pirate … with a well disguised streak of friendliness and humor. Though it was years before I learned that there actually was a real Captain Bluebeard, in my husband’s stories the pot-bellied pirate always had bubblegum stuck in his big matted beard, and before his pirating adventures began in earnest he would announce his arrival on the scene by singing from a distance, “Blow the Man Down.”. Sometimes Paul told stories that would keep us all alert and entertained on long family car trips; at other times he could tell a bedtime story that was interesting enough to keep us quiet, but just dull enough to help us fall asleep. For many of us, stories make up a large part of who we are.
As a people of God, stories are important to us as well. The Scriptures are filled with the stories of our faith. Stories that help us understand who we are, where we came from, and what God calls us to believe and do. Our first Scripture lesson for this morning told the story of the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. You will recall that the children of Israel had crossed the sea as if on dry land, but the Egptian army was tossed into the roaring seas and not one of them survived. It wasn’t long after the great Exodus from Egypt that the people of Israel started to complain. First they complained that the water in the wilderness was bitter; then they complained that they had no food, and both times God provided for their needs. In this morning’s lesson, the people are again thirsty and they whine and grumble to Moses. “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?” The Israelites were essentially asking themselves, “Is God here with us, or not?” As you will recall, God once again provided for their needs, telling Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so that water gushed from the rock and the people could drink.
Our Gospel lesson also contains a story of our faith. Having been asked the source of his authority, Jesus tells a parable, or a story, of two sons, each of whom was asked by his father to go and work in the vineyard. One son said, “I will not,” or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “I don’t want to,” but later he thought better of it and went to work in the vineyard. The second son said, “Sure Dad, glad to” but he never actually went. Jesus then asks, “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?” Clearly it was the first son, the one who actually did the work, in spite of the fact that he had told his father that he wouldn’t.
To my mind, a really, really good story, whether it is recounting an actual historical event or is purely fictional, a really good story makes a point. Whereas my husband’s stories to our children were occasionally for the sole purpose of entertainment, he did occasionally include a good moral or lesson to be learned. The stories in Scripture, the stories of our faith, always have a lesson behind them, and oftentimes more than one. In this morning’s readings we can pretty easily see the lesson. From Exodus we discover yet again that we need not doubt God’s ability to provide for our needs. God IS among us, and God’s grace is sufficient, even in these challenging times when so much seems uncertain. God is here, with us, meeting our needs day in and day out. From the Gospel of Matthew we learn that just saying we will do something is not enough … follow through and actually doing the will of our Father is what counts. By telling this story Jesus condemns his opponents for their unbelief, saying that even those who have sinned but who have repented are going to enter the kingdom of God ahead of those who claim to be righteous, but are not.
Now, these are the obvious lessons, but I’d like us to dig a little deeper into the Scriptures this morning. I don’t know about you, but as I read both of these lessons, it is easy for me to do some finger pointing, to do some evaluating and measuring of others. With our reading from Exodus I find myself thinking right away, “Oh you faithless Israelites! If you hadn’t been so quick to complain, if you had trusted that God would indeed provide, then maybe you wouldn’t have been so thirsty. After all, the water was right there beneath the surface, and God directed Moses in how to find it.” With the story of the two sons, it is easy for me to think unkind thoughts about the son who said he’d work in the vineyard, and then apparently found something more interesting to do instead. And, truthfully, I’m not all that impressed with the son who said, “No way, pops!” but then changed his mind and worked for his Dad rather than go off with his friends. After all, wouldn’t it be better if one of the sons and said, “Yes,” AND went and did the work? I’m afraid that most of us are very good about evaluating the behaviors of others aren’t we? “Well, she shouldn’t do that!” “I can’t believe he did that!” We measure others, do we not? “She dresses all wrong.” “He should get his hair cut.” “She doesn’t work hard enough.” “He should take better care of himself.”
But Jesus doesn’t tell stories to point out the flaws in others, or to have us think about how others measure up. We are not called to judge others – ever – for God is the judge. Jesus tells stories to help us see ourselves more clearly. The real question we must each ask ourselves, time and time again, is, “How do I measure up?” Am I doing what the Lord asks of me? Not just saying the right words, but doing the right things. Am I not only speaking the faith, but living the faith as well? Do I say I trust in the Savior on Sunday morning, but then allow my doubts and complaints to surface before the day is out? My friends, let us be more concerned about our own faithfulness than we are about the faithfulness of our neighbor, or our sister or brother, or our child, or our spouse.
Our lesson from Exodus may cause us to think, “Shame, shame, that they grumbled and complained even after God had done so much for them already. Where was their faith that God would provide?” But, again, the real question that each of us must ask ourselves, time and time again is, “Where is MY faith when I feel that all of MY needs are not being met?” How do I measure up before the Lord?
Most of us love a good story. May the Holy Scriptures, which tell us the story of the people of God, teach us and inspire us to ask ourselves, again and again: What is my relationship to the Lord? How do I measure up? Am I truly living the faith that I profess? Am I honoring God, with both my words and my actions? That, my friends, is the question that each of us must ask ourselves, time and time again. To God be the glory, this day and forevermore. Amen.