Wisdom Is Vindicated by Deeds 5th Pentecost
Romans 7:15-25a Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I am a big fan of Snoopy, the cute little beagle from Peanuts! When everyone else is going frantic with worry, Snoopy always seems to have a steady compass and an aptitude for JOY!
In one of his more philosophical moods, Snoopy was contemplating the question of whether it is more important to BE or to DO. Some people emphasize how crucial it is to BE, while others focus on what to DO. Be, do, be, do, which is most important? Finally, Snoopy decides…it’s do be do be do!
I thought of this comic strip when I started mulling over our Scripture readings for today. In Romans, I see Paul struggling with doing what he knows is right. And in Matthew, I hear the call of Jesus to simply come and be one of his own. Let’s take a look at these passages and explore what this means for us.
A Pharisee’s Expectation
Remember that Paul had been training to be a Pharisee for much of his life. The Pharisees were men who wanted to follow the letter of the religious law as strictly as possible, in every daily activity. Six hundred and thirteen laws! For example, if one was supposed to dedicate one tenth of one’s income to the Lord (often called a tithe), they would even give one-tenth of the herbs from their garden! No detail was too small for them. And why did they adhere to this strict application of the law? For the most part, they believed that doing this would put them in good stead with the Lord—that somehow they would be more acceptable to God if they were successful in adhering completely to the religious law. They were convinced that it was possible, and that every true believer should be this meticulous in their behavior. It tended to make them proud and judgmental. Just look at the Pharisee in the story Jesus told about the two men who went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee bragged on himself, thanking God that he was better than others, reminding God that he fasted twice a week and gave a tithe of everything he possessed!
Meanwhile, the tax collector stood off by himself and humbly begged for God’s mercy. And Jesus tells us that it was this man who was made right with God!
The Sad Truth
So Paul, an ex-Pharisee, still struggled with 1. Knowing what is right and 2. Not being able to do it. He writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?!” And then he answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” God’s mercy is the answer.
When I read this passage in Romans out loud, it sounds a bit like the ravings of a lunatic. Paul is tortured by the imperfection of the human condition, saying, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” This is a difficult truth for one who, at one time, believed that perfect obedience to the law was humanly possible. I mean, if anyone could do it, it would have been Paul! But he discovered that it was impossible.
His letter to the Romans was written in AD 58. Five or six years later, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Philippi from his prison cell. Listen to this brief excerpt, and see how his thinking has developed: “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” He previously said, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Now, he clarifies: GOD MAKES US ABLE BOTH TO WILL AND TO WORK!
God at Work
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is warning us that people will interpret our actions according to their own pre-dispositions. Those who were opposed to the reformation that John the Baptizer was bringing saw that he drank no wine and ate very simply—and they declared, “He has a demon!” When they saw Jesus eating and drinking, they said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
His response? “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!”
We see this all the time today. People twist the words of those they oppose, in order to cast them in a negative light. There is one way to reveal their lie, and that is action—right action that clearly illustrates what a person is truly like.
The problem is that, like Paul, you and I know what is right but we have difficulty doing it. The imperfection of the human condition brings us up short.
Here’s an example: a Christian posted a question on Facebook, asking non-Christian friends to explain their reasons for not believing in God or Christianity. There was no condemnation implied, only curiosity. And there was a promise that uncivil comments would be deleted.
As I read through the thoughtful responses, I was struck by several things, including: 1. The gratitude expressed for an opportunity to share their beliefs without judgment; 2. The feeling that the institution of Christianity was not consistent with the nature of God; 3. The judgmental nature of the church is a huge turn-off.
Perhaps the most helpful comment came from a Christian friend, who confessed that his behaviors may well have alienated some from following Jesus, and this was a heavy burden to him. It’s as if he was echoing Paul’s frustration, “Wretched man that I am!” and “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
As I see it, this presents a challenge to the church, a call to live the love and the non-judgment that Jesus modeled. We can show the world that God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work God’s good pleasure. But only if we are willing to let God work through us!
I would like to finish today by taking a look at Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts. By all accounts, Charles was an utter failure in his earlier years. Apparently, the character of Charlie Brown was a direct expression of his personal inability to be a success at anything. Charlie Brown, the Failure. Charlie Brown, who just can’t get anything right. But Charlie Brown who keeps on trying, whose persistence eventually made Charles Schultz one of the most treasured cartoonists in history! People love Peanuts because they see themselves in Charlie Brown, because they are inspired by Snoopy’s joyful attitude, because Linus speaks real truth to them, and because everyone knows a “Lucy”!
Charles Schultz, a follower of Christ, found a way to acknowledge failure AND still be used by God to bless the world!
Friends, we have before us a banquet table that holds the essence of failure—a broken body, blood poured out. But it also holds the amazing promise of God to live in us and to give us life, to enable us to both will and work for God’s good pleasure.