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Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk
by Stephen Bevans, SVD | September 20, 2011
Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 25, 2011)
Today’s gospel tells the familiar story of the two sons, both of whom were asked to go work in their father’s vineyard. One of them, Jesus says, said right away that he wouldn’t go, but he went anyway. The other, however, even though he said he would go, actually never went. The second son “talked the talk.” The first “walked the walk.”
Jesus asked his audience—the “chief priests and elders of the people”—which son did what the father wanted, and they responded “the first”: the one who “walked the walk.”
Every time I have read this parable in the past I have assumed that those chief priests and elders were right, and that Jesus agreed with them. When I read it this time, though, it struck me that Jesus never really said that they are right. In fact, it strikes me that both sons refused to do what their father wanted. The one, who only “talked the talk,” insulted is father by basically lying to him. The other, who only “walked the walk,” insulted his father by not respecting him enough to speak to him the way he deserved.
While it is certainly more important to “walk the walk,” it is even better to both “talk” and “walk.” Christianity is a religion of signs and symbols, and many of these are not just about doing the right thing, but saying the right thing as well. This is true in terms of our faith—we need both to act like Jesus, but we also need to confess Jesus as Lord, as the one whose life shows us the full mystery of God. It is also true in terms of our ministry. Not only should we be people of service, we should be clear why we serve, and be able to explain it to others. We serve others not to feel good ourselves, or even make others feel good, but because others are made in God’s image and because we want to have the attitude that Christ had—or as other translations of our beautiful second reading puts it, to have the “mind of Christ.”
In emptying himself, Jesus both “walked the walk” and “talked the talk.” He himself was a perfect example of the God of love that he talked about and prayed to so intimately. He was truly one of us, “born in the likeness of women and men,” and “humbled himself, accepting death, even death on a cross.” It was his “talk”—his wonderful stories of God’s mercy, and challenge, and justice, and inclusion—that touched the hearts of those tax collectors and prostitutes who gladly accepted his message and totally changed their lives.
Celebrating Eucharist involves a lot of “talking.” We sing together, pray together, listen to God’s saving word, say Amen to the Eucharistic prayer that is prayed by the presider in our name. These are powerful words, and, if we let them, they can shape and form us in our faith, and bring us to a greater awareness of who we are and what we do as Christians and ministers. We need this kind of “talking.” We can’t do without it. We have to learn to pay attention, to “talk the talk.” We need to say with our whole hearts, “Jesus Christ is Lord!” But if the Eucharist doesn’t help us “walk” more faithfully and more joyfully, if it does not help us put on the “mind of Christ” and empty ourselves in service imitation of him, then it doesn’t mean anything. The beautiful and formative words we say have to send us out joyfully into the vineyard.
Being a Christian is not just doing the right things. It is also about saying the right things. Both are important. The best son (or daughter) is one who says he (or she) will go, and actually goes! What God wants of us is both “talk” and “walk.”
Stephen Bevans, SVD
Steve Bevans is Professor Emeritus at Catholic Theological Union and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.
His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).
He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.