Words can be useless things.
Today I continue my journey through the book of Matthew with the 21st chapter. There are something like six separate sections within, but I will only be focusing on one: 21:28-32. The version I am reading calls this "The Parable of the Two Sons."
The story is simple: the father asked his two sons to do some work for him. The first said no, but later reconsidered and did as requested. The second son responded in the affirmative but then failed to do the work. Jesus then asked his listeners which of the two did what his father asked. The answer was obvious.
As parables go, this one is fairly simple. The message is clear. Words and outward appearances have limited value, and what lies behind them is more important. I would add that even in the absence of words, actions are worthy of the most attention. As Jesus speaks to religious leaders in this passage, he reminds them that despite all the seeming advantages accrued to them in being connected to the things of God, their failure to believe and trust in him puts them behind others. Even those whose past lives were far from righteous.
When I think about pastoral ministry, I think about people that use words with deep regularity. Preaching, teaching, writing: you name it, we are people of words. While we are not quite the same as the people whom Jesus is addressing in this parable, we are a reasonable contemporary analogue.
The words we ministers use have great potential for building others up and helping shepherd change. They can inspire and inform. They can challenge and correct. We will say a great host of things as we inhabit our roles. For most of us, this is a significant part of the job.
And yet, as I am reminded in reading Matthew 21, words can be hollow things. Mere platitudes or rote repetition. Principles that are never implemented and untethered theologies of little import.
Failing to connect our expressed words and outward presentation with actual action and interiority is what we often call hypocrisy. It teaches us to value the aesthetic principle and public face, and leave reality behind as something less than significant. The words we speak and lives we live that have nothing real behind them can teach others to speak and live this way too. Such an incongruity between the exterior and interior can further create great disillusionment in those we lead.
I love words. You who are reading this can probably tell that. Many of my fellow ministers love them too. And that is fine, as far as it goes. Many of us find these words and the roles we occupy in our religious communities to be rewarding ones--despite the challenges. It can be easy to think that there is automatic connection between the occupation we hold and our connection with God. Between our designated role and our discipleship. Between our words and our (true) worship.
But in the parable of the two sons, Jesus says no. What others (or even you) think you are is not necessarily accurate. The true test is what happens on the long haul. How it translates into true belief and the place of real action. So, my friends, a question: what are you saying or seeming, and what does that have to do with what you are doing or being? Because the first part of our answer to that question matters little if the latter half is out of alignment.
This congruity is about matters both large and small. Things that will be publicly brought into the light, and other realities that only those who know us best might be aware of. In many cases, it will just be between you and God. Regardless of how large or well known, though, the challenge is still there: will our actions and internal lives live up to our image and vaunted words? For the sake of the calling of Christ on our lives, I pray it does.