A cry erupts from our hearts – our cri de coeur – notice how things always sound more eloquent in French. A cry erupts: how can I/we make a difference? Because we often don’t see how we really do make a difference through the ordinary everyday events of living our lives, our cri de coeur becomes – how can we experience ourselves making a difference?
For me, this is a deeply personal question. However, I feel this not just as my question. I feel it personally in relation to my community. So now the question moves towards a partial answer as it broadens into – can I experience myself making a difference through being part of a community that makes a difference?
Having broadened the focus of the cry of my heart to encompass my role in community action, I now narrow it down again to myself. Now, my cri de couer becomes – where does my responsibility lie to ensure that my community is making a difference in the world? Part of the answer lies in my participating, playing my part, in the community.
Reasons for resistance
We often hear ourselves saying – it’s not my responsibility. I’m rather fond of the oft used American expression – that’s above my pay grade. The limitation of responsibility becomes a core preoccupation in our collective life, i.e. our lives lived in relationships, families, institutions, and in communities. As a society we are increasingly into the blame game. This makes taking responsibility is a fearful thing to do. Being responsible equates with being vulnerable to carrying the blame when something goes wrong.
Consequently, we live in a tension. We long to experience ourselves making a difference. The way into that for most of us is through our involvement in communities that make a difference. Yet, at the same time we fear involvement because it carries responsibility. Responsibility carries the risk of being blamed when things don’t go right. More crucially though, we fear taking-on responsibility, because of our experience of being drained and exhausted, finding ourselves burdened by being given more responsibility than any one person is able to realistically shoulder.
So we hold back. We protect ourselves. And in so doing we experience the encroaching corrosion of a sense of futility. The experience of futility is the fruit of our feeling that there seems nothing we can do to make a difference; that there is nothing we can do to change the world for the better. Futility corrodes our self-confidence and results in our imprisonment within a cocoon of fearfulness. As a human being, the cry of my heart is an expression of my longing to move beyond my fears, into an experience of myself making a difference.
The Jesus storyline
Between last week and today the Lectionary leapfrogs to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It’s odd to find ourselves here I think, because these are the events we more properly celebrate on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week.
Earlier in chapter 21 Matthew records Jesus’ arrival in the Temple precincts, where he creates a ruckus of monumental proportions. A new side of Jesus’ personality comes into view as he gives vent to rage, an emotion we have hitherto not encountered in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus.
Consequently, Jesus has really jangled the nerves of the Temple authorities, the priests and scribes. For they are not simply the religious rulers, but like the Dalai Lama, they are also the de facto civil government of the Jews and as such are directly responsible to the Roman overlords. So they are concerned about keeping a lid on subversive elements taking advantage to create civil unrest at the most volatile time of the Jewish Year, the celebration of Passover. Therefore, to put it mildly, Jesus seems to be acting in a particularly provocative manner, almost designed to bring the wrath of authority down on his head.
There is a complex argument taking place between Jesus and the authorities concerning the difference between authority and power. They have the power, and yet they are anxious about his authority. Their very denial of his authority is confirmation they think he has some. Jesus begins a cat and mouse game with them, and we will come back to his debating agility over the coming weeks.
Jesus cuts to the chase when he says to them: what do you think about the story I am now going to tell you? He then offers the parable of a father’s request to his two sons to assist him by working in the family’s vineyard. Jesus seems to be saying: look, authority is about the way you recognize or not as the case may be, your responsibilities.
The parable seems to make a point about the importance of accepting responsibility. We accept responsibility not through what we say, but through what we do. The first son refuses his father’s request. This is an action that would have been unthinkable in the patriarchy of Jesus’ day. Even-so, he appears to change his mind. Having said no, he goes into the vineyard, anyway.
Jesus’ larger point here concerns the nature of the Kingdom of God. Entry into the Kingdom is not about being the right kind of person with the right answer. Entry to the Kingdom is about our longing to be part of it, our need to be part of it, and our welcoming its arrival through our actions.
Matthew Skinner in his comment on this text asks the question:
Which vineyard will I choose? We don’t need many words to evoke the vineyards — places, issues, causes — where we might have been called to labor over the last few months. 
As a society we are overwhelmed by the multiplicity of vineyards clamoring for our labor. We long to throw ourselves into impactful action, while at the same time fearing committing ourselves. Even if we want to say yes, but are fearful of following through.
What happens to the first son? I mentioned earlier that he seems to have had a change of mind. Changing ones mind is something we do a thousand times a day. It’s an action mostly involving little cost or consequence for us. Actually, the word Matthew uses translates better as a change of heart. The first son has a change of heart. How much more significant are those moments when we have a change of heart. A change of heart is not only a less frequent experience for us than merely changing our minds, the consequences of a change of heart are far reaching.
There are so many vineyards clamoring for our attention:
- domestic violence,
- religious bigotry,
- the proper place of guns in society,
- immigration reform,
- child and family poverty,
- a truly worldwide concern for public health.
- the alarming deterioration of the environment, posing the single greatest danger to people everywhere on the planet.
Each of us will have our own personal list of issues and our own personal prioritizing and defining of these issues. Generally though, we mostly agree on the issues. It’s our different ways of defining the issues and our disagreement on the solutions that bedevils effective community action.
A call to action
Since the latter part of August I have been calling to the community in which I serve, for all of us to contemplate the ways we might fruitfully labor in our communal vineyard. I am hoping that my hearers will experience a siren – as in increasingly irresistible, quality to my call.
In response to Jesus’ second vineyard parable I invite the members of my community to recommence an intentional conversation around the following questions:
- Where – in what areas of community life – is God offering me an opportunity for fulfilling my longing to make a difference beyond myself?
- As a spiritual community, where – in what vineyards – might God be calling us to invest ourselves so as to make a difference in the wider world around us – in the city, in the state, in the nation, and in the world?
On Labor Day Weekend I quoted Matthew Skinner’s comment that peering into the mists of autumn we discover that we belong to one another https://relationalrealities.com/2014/08/30/jesus-take-the-wheel/. You will now be aware that I like what Skinner has to say. So I return to him in order to define another aspect, particularly emerging from this Gospel reading, of what belonging to one another involves. He notes that:
Working in a vineyard implies patient, hard work. Progress does not occur unless people come back and resume their work day after day. Usually in groups.
We can easily become like the religious authorities Jesus confronts in the Temple. Our imaginations can become limited by our desire to play it safe and avoid taking risks.
Yet, God is out there in the world waiting for us to join-in and to follow through on our good intentions. Can we make a difference? My good intention is to find ways to respond to this cry of the heart erupting from deep within me. My good intention is to facilitate the members of my community, employing their knowledge and skills, but above all their passions to participate together in building a community that does make a difference. Skinner notes that the transformation of good intentions into actions is not merely a desire to keep ourselves busy and distracted from our real longings.
When we follow through on our responsibilities we discover our heart’s desire. We find those places of encounter with God in the world, and we find out how much God has been waiting for us to make a difference.
Wonderful! I also think of this as a lesson about gentile inclusion in the worship of G-d, prefiguring Acts 10 and Acts 15. The money changers and distractions were in the gentile court, interrupting gentile prayer…