You talk the talk, but do you walk the walk? That is the question. The Lutheran Church today is frequently cited as an example of “quietism”: our talk sounds nice, but our theology leads us to do nothing. It is true our theology has a low opinion of humankind’s capacity for good. I think we’re realistic, in that. In almost any current news story you can find people who are presented with incontrovertible proof of something and who are yet not convinced to change their minds. That is, for us Lutherans, a mark of sinfulness. Sin explains the failure to change; it doesn’t excuse it. Human capacity to reject incontrovertible proof was in place in the medieval Church when Luther protested indulgences. It was in place in the scene Matthew narrates this morning. Jesus says to the Chief Priests and Elders: “John came in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe. But then he won over the tax collectors and prostitutes. He drew the most despised people into God; only God could do that. AND YOU STILL DIDN’T CHANGE YOUR MINDS ABOUT HIM!”
Minds can and do change, as they do in the parable of the two sons. As a Christian, I say, “minds change when Christ changes minds through his actions.” Chief among them: death on a cross. Matthew alludes to this change because of the cross, in a typically Matthean way. Matthew contains numerous “doublets”: repeated stories or characters. He wants us to understand these together. Fred Niedner over at VU argues (and I agree with him) that this parable has a doublet, another scene in which one person promises action and does not deliver, and another seems to oppose but then changes his mind and does something prophetic: it’s the case of Peter and Judas in the Passion.
Consider Peter. In the Last Supper, Peter tells Jesus, “If all stumble and fall over you, I surely shall not stumble and fall.” Jesus says, “Dude, you’ll deny me three times before sunrise!” Peter replies, “Even if it is necessary for me to die with you, I surely shall not deny you.” When the time comes to die, Peter hides, sneaks along behind the mob, and then when asked if he knew Jesus responds, “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Rooster crows. Peter weeps. He is present with the other disciples when Jesus commissions them, but he is never again mentioned by name.
What about Judas? In Matthew, Judas follows Jesus without incident right up until the Passion. The exchange between Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper is odd. Jesus says he will be handed over by one of the Twelve. Judas says, “Surely I am not he, Rabbi!” Jesus answers, “You say so.” In other gospels, in the Passion, Jesus’ enemies ask questions that could be statements. Like, “You’re the king of the Jews?” They inadvertently confess the truth, and Jesus responds, “Ha ha, you said so!” That doesn’t work with Jesus’ response to Judas. It’s almost as if Jesus is agreeing with Judas.
Judas’ other actions in the Passion echo a story from Zechariah. Short version: God calls Zechariah, tells him, “God, be a shepherd to a flock doomed to slaughter.” Unusual flock, but as prophetic jobs go this doesn’t sound so bad. Turns out the bosses are jerks and the coworkers are terrible, and Zechariah quits. The bosses buy out his contract for thirty pieces of silver. God says, “Throw it in the treasury.” Well, in Matthew, Judas comes to have a certain level of power over a sheep doomed to slaughter. Judas sees what happens to Jesus: he is wrongfully convicted by the Hebrew authorities, and taken to Pilate. Heck, the temple bosses treat all the people like sheep led to the slaughter. They talk a good talk. Their walk is to their own destruction. So, Judas calls them out, throws down his thirty pieces of silver. Judas is perhaps the first disciple to discern just what Jesus was fighting. Judas prophesies. Christ’s passion changed Judas’ mind. That’s the power of Christ’s cross. Christ can and does redeem even Judas Iscariot.
What are we to make of this? By interpreting the parable of the two sons with the story of Judas and Peter, Matthew brings the issue of Hebrew Temple leadership into the realm of Church leadership. Peter is a Church leader. The story of abuses in the medieval Church is practically bred into Lutherans. The words on Letters of Indulgence claimed to free the dead from dreadful imaginary penalties, and the money raised when to refurbish St. Peter’s in Rome. The young rock star theologian Martin Luther was, like everyone else, expected to play along. Yet the cross of Christ had changed Luther’s mind. For years Luther had struggled with both a vengeful God and a loving God. Finally, the Cross got its message across, and Luther saw in the crucified Christ the Son of God, faithful to the point of death, the Son of God who gave his faith to people.
This change of mind compelled Luther, frankly, to prophesy. Luther saw bad theology being used to sell false security so a building could look fancy. He recognized that if he remained silent about this, he was complicit in it. And he chose to make a stand with a public conversation around his 95 Theses. Christ acted—emptying himself on the cross—and thereby changed Martin Luther, compelling Luther to act against a gross injustice. Luther’s act came with plenty of words (Luther could talk the talk with anyone), but it was the action of standing up and refusing to back down that changed minds, changed the world, and brought us here today. He walked the walk.
It is admittedly easy to pick on the big, bad medieval Church. Everyone involved in the story is dead; no one can say, “Hey, that’s not what I did!” Matthew’s doublets won’t let us stop with that. The two sons are Judas and Peter, they are Church leaders, they are contemporary. We are the two sons. We Lutherans talk a lot of talk. According to our words in our ELCA social statements, we are: to be a church that supports both those who bear children and those who seek abortions; to be a “creation awareness center” (leading in environmental education and preservation); to push for criminal justice reform while standing in solidarity with victims of crime, those punished, and those employed in the system; to oppose the death penalty; to work for a sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all people; to improve public higher education; to work for a cooperative economy so health care is available to everyone; to seek sexual relationships built on trust, and to support such relationships whatever form they take; to oppose war, seek arms reductions, and favor political solutions (while recognizing that war sometimes happens and that people in uniform need our support); and to work for civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities in our communities.
That’s the talk we talk. I think it is pretty good talk. Trinity is a pretty on the ball congregation: most of us were probably aware of most of those things. Even if we didn’t feel terribly gung-ho about some of them, they shouldn’t surprise us. They are our verbal expressions of God’s grace in response to specific matters we face daily. They don’t speak anywhere near as loudly as actions, though. They don’t speak anywhere near as loudly as putting our time and our money where our mouth is. How shall we act? How can we act in a sinful world, where the only certainty seems to be humankind’s capacity to ignore the truth? We can walk the walk, even if not all will walk with us, because of Christ’s action. The same action that changed Martin Luther’s mind. The same action that redeems even Judas Iscariot. The cross. In the cross, Christ destroys the power of sin and gives us the faith to act with Christ for the sake of the world.
The cross gives us what theologian Mary Solberg calls “compelling knowledge.” The cross reveals that our world is broken, just as Jesus’ world was broken right down to the Temple leaders and the governor. The cross reveals our complicity in the brokenness, just as Christ’s passion reveals to Judas his role in the crucifixion. And the cross compels us to do something, just as it compels Judas to prophesy to the priests, just as it ultimately compels Peter and the other disciples to preach.
We cannot be quiet. It’s not simply a matter of “it’s not okay,” like, “pastor says we can’t be quiet”; it’s a matter of we don’t know how to be quiet. The cross is compelling us to act. The cross is compelling us to walk the walk as well as we talk the talk. Those actions speak louder than words. Those actions carry the cross of Christ to our neighbors. Those actions change the minds that would not otherwise see God in the world. When people in the area say they’ve heard of Trinity, it isn’t usually because they’ve heard I talk the talk. It’s because they’ve seen us standing up for LGBT rights, seen us house the homeless, seen us present at city council meetings, seen us supporting immigrant rights, seen us refusing to ignore racial injustice, seen us—not just the guy in the collar—us, walking the walk. Walking as Christ did. Christ has given us everything, so that we may share it with everyone, and maybe even change some minds. If it worked for Judas Iscariot…