To rightly understand our Gospel reading we need a bit of background. The day before, Jesus had entered the Temple in Jerusalem and drove out the merchants and turned over the tables of money changers. He declared, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” He then goes on to heal the blind and the lame. The children then call him the Son of David in the hearing of the chief priests. We pick up the story the next day, when Jesus once again sees the chief priests. Listen now for God’s word to you.
Alida Brill takes steroids to deal with a health problem. She has been on and off steroids for years, and she writes about how your face bloats when you are on steroids for long periods of time. It is called moon face, and it makes it difficult for her to live her life, because it feels like her face has betrayed her. She writes about it in an article in Psychology Today entitled, Saving Face. “The phrase to “save face” has been around a long time. It’s been part of English vernacular since the 19th century. The concept is a core social value in Asian cultures, among others. The meaning has remained stable across time. Saving Face signifies a desire — or defines a strategy — to avoid humiliation or embarrassment, to maintain dignity or preserve reputation. Eleanor Roosevelt’s familiar quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” is an extension on the theme of saving face.
Our emotional equilibrium requires inner strength and a sense of self. However, when we most need our protective internal guardrails they’re not always securely bolted to our psyches. We want to believe others will grant us refuge from humiliation, but it doesn’t always play out that way in human interactions. Most of us have been guilty of embarrassing someone, either willfully or inadvertently. Humiliating someone in revenge is not an admirable behavior or trait. More often, we accidentally cause another person to lose face due to misunderstanding, lack of information, or because we’re startled or shocked” (11.29.10).
The definition of Saving Face is to avoid embarrassment and keep respect.
Miss Peggy was Cooper’s preschool teacher and my friend. She always had a way of helping me to save face as a new mother. I would do something dumb, or at least not the best, often in an effort to learn all you need to know as a mother of a young child. Occasionally, I would feel stupid for not knowing how to care for my son. When I would go to Miss Peggy for some support or help, she would always say to me, “If that is the worst thing that happens today, then it is a good day.” She gave me a way to save face in my struggles as a new parent. She helped me to avoid embarrassment and preserve my sense of dignity when I felt like I was not being a very good mom.
Our gospel lesson today is all about saving face. The chief priests are trying to get at Jesus’ authority. His authority to purge the Temple of money changers, his authority to heal, his authority in relationship to their authority. You see the chief priest had been given authority by God to be the religious leaders. But now some young upstart is making waves, crowding their territory, is even called the Son of David. So they confront Jesus about his authority. Authority as you know is all about power. Who has it and how you got it. Some have authority because they have earned the respect of those around them, while others have authority because power was given through a role or position.
Now this confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests could have been a Mexican standoff where to back down would put one or all in danger, so tensions simply continue until an outside event changes things. Hollywood portrays Mexican standoffs as 5 men from different sides with guns aimed at each other. If one-person flinches or fires then all will surely die. We seem to be in a Mexican standoff right now with North Korea. Two leaders with authority continuing to escalate words, without a way to save face. Without a way to defuse the situation. I wish both of these leaders would take a page out of Jesus’ playbook. Jesus deals with their question with his own and dealt with the confrontation by giving them a way out, a way to save face. They don’t answer Jesus’ question, so he does not have to answer theirs. He protects himself and allows them to save face. When North Korea lopes insults on us, we surely do not have to threaten them in return. The consequences in this standoff are global and devastating, especially compared to five men with pistols all pointing at each other.
The psalmist teaches us about parables and Jesus takes this potentially dangerous situation and turns it into a parable. Just like the chief priest had two bad choices in answering Jesus’ question, he gives a scenario where neither son does right by his father. Each son has a face to face moment, but they respond differently. One says no to his face, but does the work. The second says yes to his face but doesn’t work. Now authority in this story is not challenged. A father’s authority is absolute. And yet, neither son does the totally correct thing by saying yes to the father and following through. Each saves face in his own way. The first feels guilty and changes his mind and meets his father’s request. The second takes the easy path in the moment saying yes to his father, but not doing the work. So I ask you, which son do you relate to more? Are you a yes man in the moment avoiding face to face conflict only to do your own thing later? Or are you the one who is honest in the moment and more likely to feel guilty and work?
Jesus invites people to choose who is right. They are dialoging, not confronting, they are part of the story, not reactive to the other. That is the essence of diplomacy. Both sides having a vested interest in reaching an agreement, a way to save face and reduce tension.
Jesus does not stop there. Once he gets them to say the first son did right, the who said no initially and then worked for his father, Jesus makes his point. The chief priests said no to John the Baptist as having authority from God, because they did not follow him. They had challenged Jesus authority as well. It was like they said no to the Heavenly father who asked them to see the ones God had sent and to follow. So, Jesus makes it clear that they had missed God’s message. To drive home the point, he says the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed and will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of them. They were too attached to their authority, to saving face in their world of power, to see Jesus for who he is: the Son of God.
Sometimes I think we miss the point too. We know Jesus is the Son of God, but when we do something wrong, really mess up, we might end up in a Mexican standoff with God. Desperate to save face, we try to deny the thing we are not proud of, or hide it from God, or rationalize it, or blame anything else. We don’t want God to know we did something bad. Rather than holding up pistols, we hold a barrier of our pride that does not allow us to ask for forgiveness, the tensions mounts between us and God because we are not in right relationship. We are too scared to surrender to God, so we hide, we wait, we blame. But then Christ breaks in. Jesus is the outside event that changes everything. Christ dying on the cross paid your debt, ends the standoff and welcomes you into God’s grace. The solution to our standoff is absolute, because God’s love for you is absolute. Let your guard down. Humble yourself before God, because in God there is no humiliation. In Christ’s grace we all save face. Amen.