Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! [Ezekiel 18:31 - NRSV]
In the campaigns waged around the Bible, and its role, or lack of it, in the public schools, one of the laments is often that we have forgotten the Ten Commandments. If only we were free to teach, recite, or post them, the proponents of religion in the schools suggest, violence would stop and children would always be kind. Somehow the presence of the Ten Commandments in our midst would offer moral rectitude. While that idea may indeed be simplistic, it raises a simple question. Have we, in fact, forgotten? The Book of Common Prayer offers this version of the Ten Commandments or Decalogue:
Hear the commandments of God to his people:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.
You shall have no other gods but me.
You shall not make for yourself any idol.
You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not commit murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not be a false witness.
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. [BCP 350]
Rules. Commandments. But one of the things we sometimes forget about the Bible is that what often sound like dire pronouncements are, simply, things that are true. These Ten Commandments constitute a fairly straightforward guide to community living. Stealing and murder destroy communities. Keeping the Sabbath helps create a healthy, less stressful rhythm to our life. When we hear of the ominous words added to not worshipping idols that: "for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me" [Exodus 20:5], we hear it as a threat and forget that children almost always do suffer from the sins of their parents; addictions and dysfunctions that are often passed along -- although we don't see or understand how. Adult Children of Alcoholics. Problems handling weight or money. Backgrounds. Reputations. But somehow the idea of rules broken and punishments given seems easier to grasp.
So today when we hear the story in Matthew of the two sons we think of obedience and either berate ourselves for not doing whatever, or commend ourselves for doing it when we didn't want to (and then pat ourselves on the back because our ancestors aren't Pharisees). But there is another way to look at this Gospel -- the simple one of looking at how we keep our word, and choosing which word we decide to keep.
I don't know if you've noticed, but often it seems less and less as if we can rely on people's promises. "I'll call you back." "The check is in the mail." " We'll get together soon." "Don't worry about it." "I'll take care of it." And we are very grateful for people who just follow up and get things done, whether they promise or not.
But that's other people. Today we need to grasp the idea that this is really about me and about you. For one key to today's lessons is that we can no longer blame (or credit) others for who we are. Ezekiel is clear -- what parents do has nothing to do with their children's relationship to God. Jesus is clear. You can't depend on the labels given to you: priest or prostitute. It is who you are that matters.
And the example isn't grandiose. In what situations do you make promises -- or say things that sound like promises -- and not follow through? Maybe never. But a lot of us, will say we will do something, when we really don't have time -- and the time never becomes available. Or we forget. Or it is easier to get that person off the phone if we say, "yes," although we know the real answer is "I don't want to" or, simply, "no."
Or, maybe, it is just that you don't want to hurt someone's feelings -- so you tell them whatever it is that you think they want to hear. "That's beautiful." "We'll get to it tomorrow." "I'll be home by ten."
Now, how we keep our word isn't directly linked to one of the Ten Commandments listed earlier. So are they, indeed, something we need for a community, something we need to get along? Is it part of honoring our parents or not lying about our neighbor? Or is it, simply, part of loving your neighbor as yourself? Part of the reading from Philippians asks us to "look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others."
Yes, today, Jesus is telling us that this has something to do with loving ourselves. And this is made concrete by choosing to follow the Word as proclaimed through Jesus himself. But it is more than that.
The bottom line, in Jesus' explanation to the chief priests and elders -- and probably to anyone else who will listen -- is that we can no longer make excuses because of birth or background; that all that matters is who we are and whose we are. We have the freedom to recognize what John proclaimed: that there are rules to follow in delight since they reflect a life lived with God. The good news is that we are no longer caught because our parents were in debt or drank or gave us everything we asked for. The bad news is that we can no longer use them or the government who taxed too much or the relatives that don't understand as an excuse.
One of the things that often confuses us as Christians is whether what we believe is more important or whether what we do is primary. But today we are told that what we believe changes who we are; and what we do naturally flows from that identity. We are called to follow Jesus. And while we can't blame our parents, we really aren't alone. Jesus will help and lead us -- excuses aside!