"A man had two sons . . .” was a common way to begin a parable, especially one comparing good and bad sons. Matthew uses it to contrast one son, who promises to work in the vineyard but never shows up, with another, who at first adamantly refuses to go to the vineyard but later repents and goes (21:28-32). Which one did the will of his father, asks Jesus? Not the one who talked a good game, but the one who actually followed through with obedient actions.
When my friends and I sang at church camp, we sang sincerely, often teary-eyed, seated on the ground with the cross illumined by candlelight in front of us. In those emotional moments, I imagined myself to be standing firm in the Lord as Paul had urged the Philippians to do. In those moments, I was determined to set my face toward him. But my single-mindedness never lasted.
The Hebrews’ stories brought their lives into balance. Moses believed that remembering where they’d been, how they’d come into the land God promised, and what God had done for them would keep them faithful. So he said that in offering the first fruits of harvest, “You shall make this response before the LORD your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’” Their story was a confession of faith, a community story that cast their thanksgiving into a framework that provided boundary and purpose to their lives together. It was a creed. Tell it again and again, Moses urged.
Jesus leads his disciples up a mountain. He was forever making them go places with him that nobody much wanted to go. But this was different. Mountains are good, quiet, restorative places for Sabbath retreat, rest and renewal. The pace had been hectic, so they headed for the hills. But on the mountain everything changes. The disciples’ solitude is intruded upon by the dead. If Peter hoped to “find himself,” forget it. He is discovered by the two great figures of the faith—Moses and Elijah. There is stunning, transfiguring vision and inspired speech. Peter, jolted awake, listens in on the conversation between Jesus and the patriarchs.
All I know about Jesus is what I heard him say. That’s all I know about almost anybody. It’s not true that “deeds speak louder than words.” Only words speak. The old “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” is only partly true. Most ministerial speech these days tends to be in the affirmative mood. We pastors are, in the acerbic words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.”