Today we are looking at the readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, aka Proper 21, aka the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. September 27, 2020. The readings assigned for this Sunday are Exodus 17:1-7 or Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; and Matthew 21:23-32.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus tells a brief parable:
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” [The chief priests and elders] said, “The first.”Matthew 21:28-31 (NRSV)
In the following verse, Jesus makes clear that this parable is an allegory: the chief priests and elders of Israel (who were trying to trick Jesus) are the son who says “yes” but does nothing, and the tax collectors and prostitutes are the son who says “no” but goes and works. One could possibly summarize the meaning as “actions speak louder than words.”
But here’s another way to look at it. Imagine if the story went like this:
“A man had two sons with bipolar disorder; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he entered a manic phase and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he became depressed and did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” [The chief priests and elders] said, “The first, but…umm…it doesn’t seem like a fair question anymore.”
Granted, this interpretation is probably not supported by the text. I’m not suggesting this is what Jesus meant. However, it is an interesting depiction of a life lived with bipolar disorder.
People who live with this particular mental illness cycle between two phases of illness: “manic” and “depressed.” The depressed phase is often rather similar to garden-variety depression: lack of energy, lack of interest in things that once made one happy, feelings of sadness and despair, that sort of thing. The manic phase can manifest as an incredible sense of energy, not needing to sleep for extended periods of time, a feeling of a “high,” a lack of inhibitions, extreme emotions like euphoria or rage. In the moment, someone in a manic phase may not want it to stop; there can be a sense of being able to do anything, accomplish anything.
The time between these cycles can vary widely. Some individuals can be in one phase or the other for several months; others can cycle within the same day. It is not ludicrous to think that the father’s sons could develop either a manic or a depressed state within the time allowed by the parable.
Then the question of the parable becomes intriguing: which one of the two did the will of his father? Is the depressed son to blame because he was unable to get himself out of bed? Or is the manic son worthy of praise because he couldn’t stop himself from constant activity? It’s hard to assign a moral value to action taken while ill. Instead, both sons become people worthy of sympathy and care, who need help to become the people they’re meant to be. Both sons, even the one who seems to be working so hard, become more like Peter’s mother-in-law, who is sick in bed with a fever — but upon her healing, is able to fulfill her calling to care for those in her home.
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