Matthew 21: 23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Over the last month a certain level of order has returned to the life of The Vicarage. Both children are at school, my patterns of weekly work and meetings have found a shape and Steph’s work commitments fit into a regular structure. Even the mornings and the school run have an almost ordered feel to them and days off feel like that. Although there are restrictions there is a shape to the day and the week which is in marked contrast to the ungoverned and unregulated time of the months prior to this.
Not just the summer holidays, but the weeks of lock-down and home schooling meant that time took on a strange and almost unreal feel. Days merged into one, as they do in the days after Christmas. But this time it was not turkey and Quality Street keeping us going, but the anxiety and uncertainty of the time we were all living through.
So now, although there will be changes ahead of us, I for one am grateful for the patterns and regularity of life we find at the moment. Some of his is temperamental – I respond better to situations where there is a little order and regularity. But the other is that this is how we expect time – at a very basic level – to work. Time comes, we are taught, in minutes and hours, days and weeks. Sometimes when that structure falls away – as it does in the lazy days after Christmas or on a really good holiday – it can be hugely restful.
But when that invades real life it can be disorientating and unsettling. That is why, for some, the Prime Minister's admission that the current restrictions will last for up to six-months is, counter intuitively, quite helpful. Rather than suggest a longer period of restriction to our lives, this acknowledgement of a timeframe gives us a shape, and space, which we can reluctantly, but with some semblance of certainty, plan our way into.
However, alongside this ordering of life in hours and days there is another way we can think about time. Not the order of a timetable and a well-ordered diary, but the idea of things happening at the right “time”. Sometimes when we talk about time we don’t mean the exact minute and second, but the right moment, the right time for that to happen.
As we return to the cherished regularities of ours ordered lives we need to not lose sight of the opportunities being set before us, the recognition that even in all this uncertainty, in some areas, the time is right.
To distinguish these two types of time some look to the language of the Bible to talk about the difference between time as Chronos – the time of minutes and hours – and time as Kairos – as the right, critical, or opportune moment.
In our Gospel reading today we find Jesus make a contrast between two groups of people who approach the world around them in these different ways using the story of two brothers asked to work in the vineyard by their father. The first initially refused, but recognising the error of his ways, went to do the work anyway. The second said the right thing, but then slipped off and did something else.
Jesus tells this story in the face of the challenges of the religious leadership of the day. They, Jesus says, are like the second son. They say the right thing, but then get on with other things thinking that there will be time for this task later. Something that can be fitted into the right hours and days of a well-ordered life.
Jesus contrasts the seeming certainty of the religious authorities with the life of the first son, who recognises the error of his ways and that the time is now to repent and enter the life and flourishing of the vineyard. The prostitutes and tax collectors – those presumed to have the lowest morals in that society – were better placed than the religious authorities, because they saw that the time was now.
As we reflect on this current situation it is natural for us to crave the certainties and order of a Chronos life. We speak of “when things get back to normal” and “when all of this is over”. But as we crave that order and certainty we need to not lose sight of the things that God is laying before us, the things where the time is right, the time is now, the Kairos moments of this season.
Over the last few weeks, we have been asking you to let us know where you are amid all the changing uncertainty of this time. Firstly, we have been asking about what you might need and how able you are to gain access to our worshipping life. Secondly, we have also been asking about what you might be able to offer into the changing patterns of our life in the Parishes by the Wall. As we have been sifting the many response three areas of opportunity have emerged.
This first, building on the regular patterns of daily prayer over the last six-months, is whether there would be the capacity to create a conscious community of prayer within the wider community of these Parishes by the Wall.
The second is, responding to the concerns we have all had in caring for the vulnerable through this crisis, whether we could build this concern and activity into a more ordered pattern of lay pastoral care in our parishes.
The third is, recognising the needs we have had to be flexible and creative in our worship patterns, whether some in our number could be trained and supported to lead worship more regularly.
As we look to the challenges of the coming months it might seem odd to be identifying more things to do. After all, could these things not wait for a better time? But that would be a Chronos response to these experiences and the opportunities God is putting before us. What the Gospel teaches us is that change happens at the moments of Kairos time God gives to us, and not in the Chronos moments we plan for. At times like these it is not about finding the best time but recognising that perhaps, despite all the other things going on, that this is the right time.
Questions for personal reflection
- What things have been lost in the uncertainty of this time?
- What things have you discovered in the opportunities of this time?
- How can we find the right time for these things in the life of the Church?