A plumber was doing some work in the parish house in Elgin. I asked him if he could turn around a sink in my kitchen to produce a well laid out space on the kitchen worktop. In reply he promised to return on Tuesday to do it. Seven years later I’m in a different parish, and – as far as I know – the plumber hasn’t come yet to do that simple job.
Obviously unreliability isn’t reserved exclusively to any particular job, but I think in the common perception politicians can be singled out as those promising a lot and delivering little. With the party conference season upon us in full swing we have heard and we will hear many promises of unbounded happiness and wellbeing poured into our ears and minds by those who hope to win next year’s general election.
Politicians are an easy target for criticism over the disparity between their words and their actions, because they are public figures, and records of their oral and actual activities are widely available. But I dare say that in general terms they are neither better nor worse in keeping their promises; as a group they just reflect the society they come from. Each one of us has been moulded and shaped by the interactions, correlations and relationships with those around us. Who we are at the moment is the outcome of those many, sometimes unconscious, impacts and influences, impressions and animosities we’ve either enjoyed or suffered in the course of our lives. Although each one of us is unique, we share many values (and vices) with other members of our society.
One of the most important features we appreciate in others is their reliability, the conformity of their words to their deeds. Many years ago, inspired by a passage from the gospel, I took up a sort of experiment to live up to my words. I discovered that the key to my success was lying in an unexpected field: I had to stop giving people quick but empty promises and assurances. When I’d learnt to be more reticent and cautious, the rest turned out to be relatively simple. Of course initially some people were a bit disappointed when I didn’t rush with my oral declarations, but eventually they found me a reliable person they could genuinely count on. What a pity this is not true anymore…
The two sons in today’s gospel present a different, but similarly imperfect, response to the same request by their father. The first one offers a positive answer, but it’s short-lived and eventually ends up with the father’s disappointment. The second son rather rudely denies any commitment, but then reconsiders the whole situation and does what he was asked to do. Both attitudes were imperfect, but the ability to think leads to correction in one of them. This is a great message to us. Whatever we think about ourselves, each and every one of us is as imperfect as anyone else. This imperfection itself is not a problem. Our inability to think about our attitudes and behaviours as imperfect makes us unable to change or to correct anything, and leads to the unrealistic expectation that everyone else has to change. As it’s not going to happen, disappointment and frustration lie at our doorstep.
Thankfully there’s another message in today’s readings. Unlike many people, exhausted by our hollowness and unreliability, God is never tired of our imperfections. He never turns his back on us with resignation and the words ‘Damn him’; he waits patiently, giving one chance after another to each one of us; a chance to think again and to narrow the gap between our verbal readiness and our actual actions. He never gives up. Don’t you give up either.