Texts read – Judges 16:23-31, Matthew 21:23-32
A lot happens in a week. That’s how long it’s been since I last had the opportunity to talk with you. The way our lectionary works, the texts for Wednesday stand under the Gospel from Sunday. So today’s story of Samson taking out the Philistines depends on Sunday’s Gospel to help interpret it. That’s why I had us read the Gospel again tonight.
Samson is like the first son in Jesus’ story. God gave Samson super powers, related to his hair. It’s a folktale; just play along. But Samson, like all superheroes, knew to keep quiet. He just couldn’t resist Delilah, despite her obviously being an enemy agent. So, he let out his secret, she cut off his hair, and he was just a normal guy. His power was a gift from God. He did not use it well. He squandered it. You could fit Samson into the dialog in Matthew. A man (God) told his son (Samson), “Hey, get to work,” but Samson said, “No. I like Delilah.” Squanders it.
But today is Samson’s moment, like that of the first son when he acts. Samson was blinded when the Philistines took him, so he must be led by the hand. And he is “performing” like a circus animal. But, as dense as Samson was about Delilah, the Philistines are no better because it never occurred to them that Samson’s hair might need continual trimming. He’s gotten back his strength. And, more importantly, he repents, like the first son. He says, “Let me have that gift one more time, and I will use it for God.” He finally seizes his moment. Now, it’s the book of Judges, so the “moment” his horribly violent. (That’s why we love telling the Samson story to children.)
We shouldn’t wonder that we tell violent stories to children. We are violent people. A week ago we learned that a Louisville, Kentucky grand jury returned one count of endangerment in the death of Breonna Taylor. Hers was a violent death. And we all have feelings and opinions about it. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of the second son in Jesus’ story. The Father, God, says, “Get to work!” The son says, “You got it,” and then plays video games all afternoon. What does that have to do with Breonna Taylor? Think of our society’s spoken ideals compared to its actions.
Our society’s ideals are epoch marking: equality; government authority derives from the consent of the governed and not some mysterious supernatural power; freedom of religion and expression; democracy. Those are wonderful things. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Those are things that we say. Like the second son.
Often, like the second son, we don’t always do them. We live out inequality based on racial or gender constructs. And some of us benefit from that inequality. We omit large sections of the governed from the social contract. And some of us benefit from that omission. We might exercise our freedoms but go to great lengths to prevent others from doing so. And some of us benefit from that prevention. We have a democracy in which some carry more weight than others and, you guessed it, benefit from that. That is our society. It is unjust.
Our society requires sometimes violent enforcement of the inequality that benefits some. Society requires that someone maintain the inequality and make the ideals look like reality. Law enforcement officers are some of the people our society requires to paper over the problems. We are lucky. We have people who cover for us. We ask the impossible of them.
The death of Breonna Taylor is unjust. Those who killed her acted in a manner you and I would consider unjust if it happened to someone in our house. And our society requires such actions in order to enforce its order. The second son is not going to go to work, and requires someone to paper over that. The thing is, in Jesus’ story, there is no paper to cover the second son. No one covers for him. No one does the work and says the son did it. No one bails him out.
The second son can only depend on Jesus to make him like the first son. We can only depend on Jesus to make us like the first son. I find that in Lutheranism we often think of forgiveness as a kind of bailout that ends the conversation. “Your sins are forgiven.” True, but not the whole story. Some will add, “Now, go and sin no more.” That’s not helpful. “Well, if I knew how not to sin I would not have done it the first time!” We depend on Jesus, the Word of God, to change us.
We hear the Word of God as law and gospel. Law, the mirror of existence, the “this is actually how it is.” The law says to the first son, “Hey, you just told God, ‘no.’ You just squandered what he gave you.” He says, “You’re right. Can you bail me out?” “Well, yes, but you’ll just do it again.” “Isn’t there anything more you can do?” Jesus says, “Yes. I can change you. With me, you can grow towards answering ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’ You’ll never quite arrive anywhere, and frankly I’ll be doing most of the work. But, yes, I can change you.” That’s the gospel.
We hear the Word of God as law and gospel. Law, the mirror of existence, the “this is actually how it is.” The law says to us, “Hey, um, wow, you guys are a mess. You are squandering what God gave you.” We might respond, “Yeah. Can you bail us out?” “Well, yes, but you’ll just do it again.” “Isn’t there anything more you can do?” Jesus says, “Yes. I can change you. With me, you can grow towards equality, justice, the things you idealize. You’ll never quite arrive anywhere, and frankly I will be doing most of the work. But, yes, I can change you.” That is the gospel. The gospel, the good news, is that the first son transforms into one who does the will of God. The good news is that Samson still gets an opportunity to use the gifts God has given him, and to use them for God.
The good news is that as long as we are alive we have the opportunity to use what God has given us for God’s work. If we are alive, we can do God’s work. It is not too late. We can take the moment, like Samson, or like the first son.