As many of you are aware, I don’t tend to be a huge fan of modern theologians, and since Dr. Stanley Hauerwas is both a theologian and alive, this makes him both modern and someone whose work I am not in love with. That said, he’s not the worst of the lot and much of what he has written makes sense logically (Hauerwas is a fan of the Vienna Circle and Wittgenstein, as am I), and so I look him up on occasion. Hauerwas wrote this, and it caught my eye this week:
“Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.”
One of the things that separates Islam from Christianity is that in Islam it is imperative to protect the honor of Allah; it’s not that Islam made this up, the Middle East in general is in the grip of an honor culture, and pretty much always has been. Honor is one of those tricky things that we admire in some contexts but not others: we like samurais but not the Hell’s Angels, and we don’t want to acknowledge how similar they really are.
“A Christian missionary in the Middle East used to share this parable about the two sons (that we heard today) with villagers that he visited and ask: “Which was the better son?”
“The vast majority answered that the son who said yes to his father even though he did not go to work in the vineyard was without doubt the better son. The son’s reply was honorable and respectful. It was what the father wanted to hear. That he never went to work in the vineyard is beside the point, which in the Middle East is always honor.
“Remember that life in the Middle East is very public. Honor, the core value of this culture, requires such publicity. The dialogue between the father and his sons in this parable takes place not in private—just between two at a time—but rather in public, within view and earshot of many villagers. Like their modern-day descendants, the Middle Eastern villagers in this parable favor the respectful but disobedient son over the disrespectful but obedient son.
“All cultures distinguish between the ideal and reality, but the gap between these two is greater in other cultures than in the ancient Middle East, generally speaking. Westerners generally believe that the ideal is the norm by which reality should be judged. If reality does not measure up to the ideal, it is flawed.
“Some … cultures prefer to blur the line between the ideal and the real. Like modern Middle Eastern respondents to Jesus’ parable, the ancients too would believe—against reality—that giving an honorable answer is enough. In their mind, conforming to the ideal of speaking respectfully is sufficient to fulfill the commandment to (as Deuteronomy tells us) to “honor one’s father [and mother]” (Dt 5:16).” 1 We would get the same answer in a lot of other contexts as well.
But Jesus didn’t ask who the honorable son was, despite the expectation of that question. Jesus asked which son did the will of his father. His point was so far away from the defense of honor that He cited the least honorable people imaginable, the tax collectors and harlots, as being exemplars of not defending the honor of God, but rather honoring God by doing His will.
So what does that look like in real life? How do we be the son that did the will of his father, so to speak? Doan and I saw a real-life example when we were down at St. John’s in Avalon a month ago. We met some people from a group called the Mustard Seed; amongst many things they do, they run a ministry called Heavenly Scavengers. The Heavenly Scavengers do just that, they scavenge for housewares of all kinds, usually things being left out in the trash but they also receive tons of donations. Anything you can put in a house they take in, and they give it out by the truckload. 5-10 families a week receive anything they need – some receive essentially everything a family needs to live. Some of these families and single people are victims of tragedy, fire, flood, victims of broken homes; some are just coming out of jail or rehab and have nothing. The common thread is that they are all who Jesus called the least of His brethren; the Heavenly Scavengers call them “the under-served.”
God just calls them His beloved, and there are plenty of His beloved around here as well. Our vineyard, our Father’s field is right out those doors, and even as we have worked faithfully in that field since 1835, we now get to choose anew which son we will be. I know how we will choose, and it’s an honor to do God’s will along with you.
1 John J. Pilch, http://liturgy.slu.edu/26OrdA092814/theword_cultural.html