Words and Promises

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of two sons who were asked by the father to do something. We don’t know the task. We don’t know if it was trivial or important. But we have a fairly common problem: A father, two sons, and a job to do. Like painting the side of a house or getting dinner or picking up mom.

One says “of course” and then promptly forgets, either willfully or not. We don’t know. The other refuses: “nope, dad, got something better to do.” But then does. Who did the will of the Father? The one who agreed to act but didn’t? Or the one who refused, and did? The answer is easy. The one who did as his father asked.

Everyone gets the answer right.

The easy lesson of the parable is “do” rather than “say.” We’re already familiar with how that our actions speak louder than words, that leading by example makes a deeper impression than a casual command, and that talk is cheap. We see these things all the time. After all, we’re in the middle of a political campaign.

When I was in Korea, a Korean parliamentarian reflected upon the use of Western law in Korea. She said, “one problem is that we Koreans believe that words lie.” In oppressive contexts, where tyrants rule, and power is located not in the law but in the person enforcing it, words mean nothing. You have to guess the hidden meaning within the layers of language that make law, and hope you won’t get killed. The language of empire – one that can include law – can be one of cruelty and fear.

Granted, we need words. Words, themselves, are almost like magic in what they telegraph. Words are at the heart of the law and judgment. Some say that words themselves are where God lives.

Words also communicate judgment. Yet sometimes when we say something about others, we probably could say the same things about ourselves.

Still, if consistency and action were the criteria for saying anything, I think we probably wouldn’t say very much at all, or be reduced to making bland comments about the weather and the Mets and what the heck happened to them this year.

Sometimes we use words to lead us into a future – like promises: “Yes, I’m going to be held accountable for this future action even though I might be easily distracted.” Words help us establish trust. Words can also help us reframe our thinking so that we can act more confidently.

I can imagine that one of the problems in our current economic crisis is that people don’t trust what others say. “You say you have money, but I don’t believe you. So I’m keeping what money I have.” And perhaps we’ve seen a lot of misplaced words and promises in our current situation.

Perhaps we are invited to consider that words themselves are actions. The problem with the first son is that he was careless, and flippantly went on his way thinking that what he said did not matter. His words weren’t actions to him. They were just words. They were breaths of air, babbling sounds to ease a conversation. Alternately, the second son valued his own words, and then changed his mind. And perhaps it is also useful to remember that it is alright, in our faith, to change our minds. We can say what we think, recognizing that yes, the world changes, and so can we.

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