Calling a Thing What It Actually Is

Do you know that Mahalia Jackson song, Rusty Old Halo? When I read the Gospel passage this week, I found that I couldn’t get that song out of my head.

The song was written by Bob Merrill, before he achieved fame for Broadway hits like Carnival, and was first recorded by Mahalia Jackson in 1954. It describes a wealthy man who has lots of material possessions but holds onto them greedily, never sharing with his neighbor. The song predicts that when that man gets to heaven, he’ll find that he is given a “rusty old halo, skinny white cloud, second-hand wings full of patches,” and a “robe that’s so woolly it scratches.”

What I love most about this song is that the rich man receives his comeuppance in heaven. The lyrics don’t imagine him swallowed by agony in the flames of hell, yet neither does the song imagine that a lifetime of enjoying the finer things while his neighbor suffers has gone unnoticed. Even in this new arrangement, both the man and his neighbor are there together with God.

“Rusty Old Halo” recalls, albeit whimsically, Mary’s Magnificat, or Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, or Lazarus and the rich man, or any Scripture passage that proclaims a reversal of fortunes between rich and poor, powerful and powerless: the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Likewise, Jesus’ rebuke of the chief priests and elders in this week’s Gospel passage turns things around: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). The tax collectors and prostitutes are going first, but the implication is that the chief priests and elders are still going, too—though perhaps at the back of the line.

I take comfort in this image of the long stream of redeemed sinners on their way to the kingdom of God, because I see in this week’s Gospel lesson a strong indictment of something of which I am often guilty and that should probably push me to the back of the line: equivocation. The chief priests and elders confront Jesus about the source of his authority, and he responds with a question of his own. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

The elders see immediately that they are in a no-win position; they are trapped between their arrogance and their fear. They know the “right” answer, and that giving that answer will expose the vulnerabilities of their own position. But if they give the answer they want, then they will invoke the ire of the crowd. They don’t make a choice or take a stand, nor do they offer a robust third option. Instead, they look for a “safe” way out. By saying, “we don’t know,” they equivocate—a word that means in its Latin roots, “to call the same.” They refuse to acknowledge aloud the differences between the possibilities, essentially calling them equal by their mealy-mouthed answer.

Equivocating often seems like the safer option, especially from the pulpit.

Indeed, there are good reasons for holding difficult subjects in careful balance. Particularly in our toxic, polarized world, an ability to navigate the humanity on the multiple sides of any number of issues is a desideratum for any preacher—and for any human being! And goodness knows the world today needs some nuance in our difficult conversations. We must be able to live with tension and paradox, to lead others out of tweet-sized theology and into a full encounter with the complexity of Scripture.

Sometimes, though, appeals to making room for many positions on an issue can simply be a mask for our fears. “There are good arguments on both sides. There are good people on both sides.” Have you ever found yourself resorting to these equivocations, ostensibly for “balance,” but actually because of fear of conflict or backlash?

Martin Luther famously distinguished between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. Whereas a theology of the cross foregrounds the suffering of Christ crucified, a theology of glory desires power through works. Among the theses of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is this: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” In other words, theologians of the cross cannot equivocate when faced with good and evil; they must call a thing what it is.

Though it would be anachronistic to call the prophet Ezekiel a theologian of the cross, he certainly could call a thing what it is, and the Old Testament passage this week is a great example of that: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life” (Ezekiel 18:26-27). Ezekiel was many things, but he was no equivocator. Die with iniquity or live with righteousness. “We don’t know” was not an acceptable answer for him, either.

Preaching requires discernment, nuance, and care for the congregation assembled so that their ears will be open to hear the Word of God. It also requires the courage, when evil is before us, to name that evil and to turn our attentions, and our hope, back to the cross.

Equivocation is not safe, even if it seems to be at first glance. It certainly does not shield the chief priests and elders from Jesus’ judgment, nor will it shield us.

Evil is before us in many ways: you see it, you know what it is, and you must call it out. My prayer for you this week, and for all of us, is that we may have the courage to call a thing what it is, and the wisdom and counsel of the Holy Spirit to accompany us in our calling.