Here in the United States, we’re very focused on having the freedom to make choices, whether they are about what school our child goes to or which doctor treats our illnesses or which church we attend. The right to make choices is ingrained in and protected by our Constitution and we appreciate that.
But if we have the right to make choices, we also have the responsibility to deal with the results of our choices. Sometimes we forget that. We think it’s all about our right to make a choice, and whatever happens after that is someone else’s responsibility. But that’s not the way it works…
If we send our child to a private school, we have the responsibility to pay for it. Our choice also does not negate our responsibility to pay taxes that underwrite public education.
If we pick a doctor, we have a responsibility to listen and ask questions about what he tells us about our health or about treatment if we are ill.
If we choose a church, we have a responsibility to listen hard and to work and to give to support the church’s ministries.
If we make a choice, the results of that choice, be they good or bad, are ours to take up.
In our reading from Exodus, we hear something we’ve heard all our lives: the ten commandments. They are God telling us what to do. And that is certainly one way to look at it. God speaks, we do.
But what if we looked at each of those commandments as an opportunity for us to make a choice, rather than following an order?
In fact, that is what they are. How do we know that? Because through the millennia since these commandments were first handed down, people made a choice to follow them, or not follow them.
Now God’s pretty clear about what is expected of us. It’s unambiguous. I am the only God. Worship me and no other God. Keep the Sabbath. Obey your father and mother. Don’t do bad things that break our relationships with one another: stealing, killing, being greedy and jealous, lying…hard to misinterpret that, right?
And yet, God’s people did. Over and over again. The commandments were barely engraved in the stone before the Israelites were making a golden calf and worshipping Baal. King David killed off the husband of a woman whom he desired. Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Over and over again, people made choices to NOT follow what God had commanded.
And then they were surprised when bad things happened. They tried to dodge responsibility. That problem dates all the way back to Adam and Eve, when Adam said, “she made me eat it” and Eve said, “the snake tricked me.”
Nobody wants to take responsibility for their choices, do they?
I love it when I read some politician talking about a choice he made that went badly. Have you noticed they always switch to the passive voice when they talk about their error? “Mistakes were made.” Not “I made a mistake.” It’s as if they thought that by not identifying themselves as the one who chose incorrectly, we’d forget or think that some mysterious someone else did it.
We learn this young. Ask a child what happened when there’s a broken cup on the floor, and she’ll say, “Somebody must have dropped it” even when they are the only person within five hundred feet of it. She fears what will happen if she takes responsibility for her choice.
And that is a fearsome thing, taking responsibility for our choices.
We see the embodiment of that fear in the gospel story…yet another parable, this one even darker than the last. Jesus is telling a story of tenant farmers who decided to avoid paying what they promised by killing those sent to collect their rent. The upshot of their choice is that they are subject to death themselves as a result of their actions. But Jesus isn’t really talking about a tenant-landlord dispute, with the tenant farmers making a bad choice and suffering final punishment because of it. He’s talking about a more important set of choices and responsibilities.
He’s talking directly to the religious leaders who have questioned his teachings.
He has told off the religious leaders just this very day, in the parable of the obedient son, saying that the tax collectors and prostitutes will be welcomed into heaven before they will. Jesus says these leaders have failed in their duty to their followers, and it is a grave sin.
Jesus continues, reminding them of another passage from the ancient texts…it’s a part of Psalm 118, the very same psalm people chanted when Jesus came into to Jerusalem a few days before and they were all praising him. He’s talking about the stone which is the cornerstone, a stone that was originally deemed flawed and inappropriate for a cornerstone, but now it is in that place of honor in the building. And now the story beneath the story begins to reveal itself.
Once again, he says the religious leaders have drawn the people away from faithful relationship with their God. They have become power hungry, putting their covenant with God after their contract with the Roman Empire. Their choice – to act in a way that protects their own temporal interests – cannot be made without understanding that such a choice is a failure of the leaders’ responsibility to help people in their relationship with God. In failing this responsibility, they must pay a price.
But their price – condemnation by Jesus Christ, the Son of God – is small compared to the choice he makes and the price he must pay. By choosing to name them as the problem, he is taking on the responsibility for his strong words. Truth-telling is rarely well-received by those who have something to hide. And what will that price be?
Those religious leaders know that Jesus is that stone that the psalmist talked about, that stone which seemed wrong, flawed, unsuitable. He is the chosen cornerstone…and the religious leaders are terrified by that possibility. Choice – their choice – means responsibility and consequences, and they will kill Jesus to try and keep those consequences at bay.
Now imagine how different the story might have been had those Pharisees, those religious leaders, taken Jesus’ words to heart, if they hadn’t used them as a pretext for his death but as a guideline to a truer fulfillment of their responsibilities.
What would that have looked like?
Perhaps it would have been a vision of what Paul says in his letter to the Church in Philippi.
Paul says, “I was the best possible Jew you can imagine. I was a Benjaminite, circumsized according to the law. I was a Pharisee. I was true to the law, zealous for it! I tried to get rid of those who seemed to be tearing down the law, especially those early Christ-followers. But then something happened to me. I learned of Christ. And suddenly I could see that all the work of my former life, all those battles to protect the law, were stupid, wrong, a waste of time. All that mattered was Christ. I was transformed, and now nothing matters but sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. I’m not a perfect follower of Christ, but I’m working on it, so that someday I may enjoy eternal life with him in heaven.”
Paul has made a choice as a religious leader to change, by the grace of Jesus Christ. Although he was once the same sort of religious leader that Jesus disparaged in the story today, he has allowed himself to be transformed into something more. And in making that joyful choice, he has also taken on the consequent responsibility to spread the good news about Jesus. The end result may be difficult for him – he too may die as other followers of Christ have died, as Christ himself died – but the overarching responsibility to show God’s love by sharing God’s word demands that he ignore that possibility.
Each day we take advantage of our possibilities. We make a hundred choices, from what we will have for breakfast to what television program we will watch in the evening. Each choice carries with it a responsibility, and perhaps even a consequence.
If we have been given the gift of choice, shouldn’t we think of them as Paul did, as Moses did, as Jesus did? Shouldn’t we choose what comports with what pleases our Lord? Shouldn’t we recognize that our responsibilities are ultimately the same ones that Jesus faced as he spoke out against that which was wrong and prepared for the consequences of his words?
Our choices are not about us. They are not about our pleasure in the moment. They are about something much larger. They are about our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, about our responsibilities despite any consequences.
Can we choose as Jesus did? Can we choose as Paul did? Can we choose as other brave voices did, recognizing the risk, accepting the responsibility?
As believers, how can we do anything less?