Several years ago, I attended an ordination in which a very unusual event happened. The ordinand, a young man being officially ordained into Christian ministry, had a pie gently thrown into his face. At the time, I remember thinking that the one doing the pie throwing had performed an audacious and somewhat foolish act. At a moment when church decorum and respect for the ordinand should have been evident to a high degree, the ordinand found himself wiping away whipped cream and sodden flakes of someone’s homemade crust. It would be as if someone had roasted the mayor upon her swearing into office, or if a play stethoscope were to be given to a nurse upon his graduation from nursing school. It upset the way things were supposed to go, the way events should proceed at such moments.
Or so I initially thought. Actually, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the moment—was it a disruption? Or was it a lesson? I questioned this even though the actual pie-thrower preached an eloquent sermon about his reasons. And while the ordinand handled this pie-event during his ordination with characteristic poise and grace, I did feel somewhat pained for him. There is something altogether humbling about having lemon meringue shoved into your face on one of the most important days of your life. I remember hoping that the ordinand would, at least, enjoy the taste of the pie.
I’ve had some time and distance to think about this incident and to gain perspective. It seems that we’ve all experienced having a pie or two thrown our way, if not literally, than figuratively. All in all, it might not be such a bad welcome into ministry or into any work into which we might assume a leadership role. Some might even call it a kind of preparation for those times when our own insistence on decorum and “the way things ought to be done” gets the best of us and tries to smother the Jesus we follow. At these times, we might discover that a little pie throwing tends to cut through our excuses and defenses. A little pie throwing might cause us to ask, what is really going on here? And why am I so upset?
Now let me be clear. I am not advocating that we throw pies at each other. Not at all. But if you look at today’s scripture, you might very well see Jesus playfully throwing a couple of questions and an eye-opening story right into the face of the religious establishment. Before this story, Jesus has overturned a couple of money-changer tables while strolling the temple precincts. This action sets the stage for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. Perhaps Jesus should have stuck with pies. But somehow I don’t think his point would have been as powerful. By tossing the money-changer tables, Jesus calls into question the whole business of sacrifice and questions the meaning of the temple itself. “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it into a den of robbers!” Jesus exclaims. And you can almost see the reaction of the leadership.
So, it is no wonder that Jesus finds himself being scrutinized by the temple leaders—those who are the temple movers and shakers. “By what authority, Jesus, are you doing this?” they ask. Who or what gives you the right? Of course, it’s a trick question. Because if Jesus says “God,” then that would lead to refutation, because everyone knows that authority is handed down traditionally from one generation to another all the way back to Moses himself, and where did this marginal “rabbi” come from anyway? We didn’t ordain him. And if Jesus responds with candor, “I do this by my own authority,” then he would blaspheme God and lose a teaching moment. So instead he does what good rabbis do, he asks them a question and tells them a story.
Sometimes when people cannot accept something that is contrary to their pre-conceived understanding, they find it easier to question the authority of the messenger, debate credentials, credibility, or the social status of admirers. Sometimes when pie is thrown in God’s kingdom, roles are reversed…the leaders become learners and the learners become leaders. Jesus shares a story about two sons, neither of whom are particularly obedient, at least not at first.
Who decides if we are truly being righteous? Who gets to determine whether this group or that group shall enter into heaven or God’s own joy here on earth? Who decides if the end justifies the means or the time is now to make a change or to act in a contrary manner to expectations? The leaders in this story are convinced of their own righteousness, their own ability to discern who is in, who is out, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Jesus clearly challenges that with a bit of pie-throwing. He upsets the perceived balance to show just how out-of-balance the establishment is. And he helps the leaders to answer their own question in their hearts, which is a better place to answer our questions of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
Which son are we? Are we the one who makes promises and doesn’t follow through? Or do we always say “no” when asked to do some necessary task? Notice that the second son responds with the proper speech, decorum, and attitude when asked to work in the vineyard. “I go sir,” he replies, but ultimately, he doesn’t go. Was it Woody Allen who said, half of life is simply showing up? The first son adamantly refuses to go to the vineyard, and he’s initially rude to his father. But later he reconsiders and changes his mind. He shows up. Actually, he does more than just show up. He does the hard work of trying to gain a Godly perspective on his life, both choices and perceptions.
To change our perceptions and reactions is difficult. It requires the capacity to see beyond ourselves, our own little world.
The motivational speaker and writer Tony Robbins tells a story about when he was an 11-year-old boy. His family had little food and his parents were having marital issues with each other. That year, at Thanksgiving, a food basket arrived on his family’s doorstep. His father made a decision to perceive the basket as charity, and if it was charity, then his father concluded that meant he was worthless, and if he was worthless as a father, then he may as well leave. And Tony’s father did leave. These were decisions that Tony’s father made when he saw that food basket. But Tony, the son, chose to think differently about the food basket. He figured the food was somebody’s gift to him and to his family, and if it were somebody’s gift, then that meant that somebody truly cared about them. He was struck that strangers–people he didn’t even know– cared about his family. Ultimately, that food basket motivated him to help make Thanksgiving for two other families when he turned 17 years old. These were two different ways of perceiving the same event, two different responses.
To repent in the New Testament means to change one’s mind. It means to turn around from one way of perceiving the world and oneself, and to embrace another way. It means to expand one’s view and to recognize that we can often be more full of our own opinions, than the righteousness of God. And sometimes changing our mind requires a proverbial pie in our face, a breach of decorum, or upsetting a temple practice to realize that God’s ways are often not our own. Gilberto Collazo writes, “Christian living is a process. God’s timeline for each one of us is unique, and only God knows what the final product is going to look like. We do not expect an instantaneous transformation of our life’s attitudes and actions, but rather an on-going process of change that results from the ever-growing awareness of our need to be at a different place if we are to be true Christ followers. The process begins with our conscious decision to become reflections of Christ in our actions and reactions to life.”
To those who thought they knew the right things to say, the right things to do, and the right way to be, Jesus says, “The prostitutes and tax collectors are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” We are shocked. It’s as if a pie struck us between the eyes. But does our righteousness ever get in the way of our ability to see God at work in our midst? Some of the leaders of Jesus’ time talked a good game, but in the end, they didn’t bother showing up. Their talk and their deeds didn’t hold together. What strikes us more to the core: that God might need us to work in his vineyard? Or that we have a tendency to say “yes” but only if we can remain the same as we are?
 Feasting on the Word: Year A, volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) 114.