Whenever we read through the Book of Exodus in church and re=trace the story of the journey through the desert I am reminded of family car trips as a child. Especially trips to Perth – we lived in Collie which I realise now isn’t all that far – but we kids would start grumbling about where the Collie turn-off enters the South-West Highway. We were hungry, we were thirsty, somebody inevitably had forgotten to go the toilet, and of course the all-time favourite, ‘are we there yet?’ I mean it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If we were there already we wouldn’t be driving through the bush. I seem to remember dad teaching us kids to look out for the mile pegs. Maybe that was his way of telling us to work it out for ourselves.
Of course grown-ups don’t grumble ... well, that’s not quite right, is it? We are a bit more sophisticated, we know the etiquette of grumbling, when it’s socially acceptable to grumble and when it’s best not to. We grumble about the weather, about the government, about the cost of living ... and when we grumble about other people we do it politely behind their backs ... so actually, the story of the people of Israel grumbling as they follow God’s direction in what looks suspiciously like aimless circles through the desert is one that we can pretty easily relate to. It’s the story of every one of us – trying to trust God, trying to see our lives as meaningful and purposeful, trying to believe we are being cared for and led – but most of the time pretty sure we’re lost.
The psalm for today is rather wonderful, I think, because it’s a psalm of praise and it focuses our attention on God’s providence – the ways that God provided for the people in the desert, and the ways that God provides for our needs always. The psalmist reminds us that it was God who miraculously parted the waters so the people could escape from slavery, God who went before the people and led them with a fiery pillar by night and a cloud by day, God who provided food and water in the wasteland – in retrospect the 40 year meandering the desert is interpreted as a miracle of God’s gracious provision, and God making good on God’s promises. It’s perhaps part of the religious genius of the Jewish people that they don’t forget that they grumbled and complained the whole time, and it reminds us that faith and spirituality are always a clash and a tension between our own hopes and fears.
Well, today is the last of our four weeks’ reflection on Sustainable September, and the theme of food, and the formation students who provided reflections on the weekly readings suggest that today, the theme is especially that of celebrating and giving thanks for God’s providence. And so it must be, but – the tension between the memory of God’s providence and the fear that God will let us down, that is a consistent theme in the Exodus readings, is also a consistent thread in our own lives and in the world we live in. What, for example does it mean – in what sense can it be claimed in a way that is not meaningless if not outright false and cruel – that God’s providence is a reality on the Horn of Africa, and that people there should be giving thanks for God’s care? You see, if God’s compassion and care are not a universal reality but only apply to some people at some times, then what good is that? How can any of us be thankful for God’s providence when in our own lives we face hard realities, or when in our own country we know that tens of thousands are homeless every night, that children go to school without breakfast while other Australians have obscene wealth?
It is right, I think, to look back on our lives and to reflect that, even though we might not have been able to see it at the time, God has been there for us in hard times, that we were given the gifts we needed, perhaps the gift of endurance and courage, or the gift of friendship. This is right, and to learn to be thankful in hindsight even when at the time we keep asking God, ‘are we there yet?’, is a mark of spiritual growth. But the hard question remains – where is God’s providence and compassion when women and men and children don’t ever reach the other side of the desert, and when the help they need doesn’t come?
I see an answer to this in today’s Gospel reading, which wryly describes another universal human experience. Hypocrisy, of course, is saying one thing and doing another, and Jesus tells this story of the two brothers as a way of pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who gave lip service to the preaching of John the Baptist but didn’t put into practical action what they professed. Hopefully, it comes as no surprise to hear that this too is a universal human characteristic, that we all practise hypocrisy in big and small ways. In fact, next time anyone suggests to you that church is full of hypocrites, agree with them. Tell them we have room for a few more.
Psychologists tell us a few things about the credibility gap between what we say we believe and what we actually demonstrate by our actions. They call it dissonance, the psychic discomfort that results from the tension between our beliefs and our actions, and what we do to relieve it. In fact, they point out, we don’t generally come to act in a certain way because of what we believe, but the other way around. We put in place belief structures to support what we are doing, in order to relieve the feeling of dissonance. In other words, when we learn to act in a certain way, then belief follows. We learn about faithfulness by being faithful. We learn about compassion by practising acts of kindness. Perhaps it goes both ways – sometimes our beliefs lead our actions, but when we do act in a way that is consistent with our beliefs, then our faith grows in strength. I believe it is important to give money for disaster and famine relief. I believe it is important to reach out to those in our community who need help. But if I’m not acting on that belief, if what I actually do for others is half-hearted or grudging then my belief becomes muted and fuzzy and uncertain. I start to put escape clauses in my beliefs – for example that some people don’t deserve help ... I’d like to do something but it’s all too much, too far away ... yes, but charity begins at home ... That’s dissonance.
So the two sons are both us. The son that says no, but obeys his father’s request; and the son that says yes, but does nothing. Both of these patterns are characteristic of all of us at times. As always, we need to take Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees on board, because it always applies pretty well to us. But the one thing I wanted to point out in today’s context – is that both sons are invited to work in the vineyard.
Of course the owner of the vineyard represents God, and the vineyard is God’s purpose and God’s mission in the world, a mission of healing and reconciliation and provision for human need. And the point is that we are invited to work in this vineyard. Our faith is not a spectator sport, but a circle of belief and action, a practical spirituality of care. We learn to recognise and be thankful for God’s gracious provision in our own lives, by becoming agents of God’s providence in the lives of others. The only way for us to overcome the dissonance of claiming God’s compassion and care in situations of human despair and tragedy – is to be involved.
Actually, very few human tragedies are random or politically neutral. In most cases even so-called natural disasters are compounded by human inequality, political failure, greed, heedlessness and lack of concern. The famines that rock east Africa with dreary predictability are not what used to be called acts of God, not even just random weather events, but the outcome of centuries-long exploitation of poorer nations by First World economic interests that have resulted in economic disruption, climate change, political enfeeblement and of course endemic poverty that strip populations of resilience to variations in the natural cycle. The same might be said of poverty and social problems in wealthy nations like our own – there is a systematic logic by which the wealth of some results in the impoverishment of others. God’s providential care is universal – the inequality is in us, and the solution also lies in our response to God’s invitation to practise the spirituality of compassion.
But what is our response going to be?