September 24-October 1, 2008 – School district quickly suspends controversial policy

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Warm-up Question: Tell about a time when you have changed your mind about something important.

At the beginning of the school year, the Edmonds, Washington school district had implemented a new policy: students who owed more than $10.00 in the cafeteria would have their hot lunches confiscated and replaced with a cheese sandwich and no drink. Because of food safety rules, the confiscated lunches had to be thrown away. Previously, students who didn’t have lunch money had been allowed to charge their lunches.

District officials acknowledged that implementing the policy was difficult, and that they were seeking to balance the district’s need to be financially responsible with making sure that the kids were fed. At the end of the last school year, the district was owed $207,763 in unpaid lunch fees, and officials realized that the district could not long afford to continue the pattern of allowing students with delinquent lunch accounts to continue charging.

Many of the students who owed money would qualify for the government sponsored free lunch or reduced price lunch program for low-income families, but had not filled out the paperwork. Others came from families who could pay, and who did settle their debts as soon as their kids had their hot lunches confiscated. Within five days, 35% of those who owed money had paid their debt. Some parents had been unaware that their children had been charging cafeteria lunches instead of eating the lunches they had packed from home; other parents had simply neglected to keep their children’s cafeteria lunch accounts current.

The policy quickly proved to be controversial. Some cafeteria workers refused to cooperate with the new school policy, and refused to take milk and fruit away from young kids. Some workers had begun donating money to buy lunches for kids who would otherwise be served a sandwich. “They’re children and it’s not their fault,” said one cashier. “For some of these kids, it’s the only decent meal they get in a day. Could you do it? Could you look into a kindergartner’s eyes and take away their lunch and give them a cold cheese sandwich and nothing else? I just can’t. If I lose my job over it, OK.”

Public reaction to the policy was primarily negative, although some had applauded the school district for its “tough love” efforts, noting that someone would not expect to eat at a restaurant without paying, and that it is the parents, not the taxpayers, who are responsible for feeding the children. Many others criticized the district for wasting food by throwing it away and for unfairly punishing the students because of their parents’ failure to pay.

In response to the criticisms, the Edmonds School District quickly revised the policy to allow students to keep their milk, and, a few days later, announced that it was temporarily suspending the policy. The school district also announced that it would develop a new policy regarding students with delinquent cafeteria lunch accounts.

Discussion Questions

  • What motivated the school district officials to put the policy in place? Why was the policy controversial? Why do you think the district officials changed their minds?
  • Imagine that you are a parent of a student whose lunch had been confiscated. How would you feel about what happened?
  • What would you do? Imagine that you are a student whose lunch was confiscated. How would you feel? What would tell your parents when you got home?
  • Imagine that you are a cafeteria worker. Would you be willing to risk your job by resisting the policy? Would you treat younger students differently than older students? Why or why not?
  • Do you think this policy was fair or unfair? Why? Do you think that the school district made the right decision to change the policy in response to the criticisms they had received? Why or why not?
  • When it comes to holding others accountable, do you lean more toward practicing “tough love” or toward being lenient and forgiving?
  • What factors would lead you to change your mind about a decision you had made?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 28, 2008.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Jesus was a controversial figure. The religious leaders had been critical of his teachings and his actions and questioned his authority. So Jesus poses a question to them: by what authority did John the Baptist baptize? Was it from heaven (God) or from humans? The religious leaders struggle with the question, because they realize that no matter how they answer, they open themselves to criticism. If they say “from heaven,” they would face the question, “then why didn’t you believe him?” If they say, “from humans,” the crowds would be angry with them for denying John’s status as a prophet. So the leaders dodge the question by saying “we don’t know.” Since they refuse to answer Jesus’ question about John’s authority, he won’t answer their question, either (Matthew 21:23-27).

Then Jesus tells a parable, giving them a “story problem” to solve. Which of the following sons did the will of his father? The one who first refused his father’s request to go to work, then changed his mind and went, or the one who said he would go, but didn’t? (Matthew 21:28-31).

Unlike the previous question about authority, this is a question they will answer, perhaps because it is an easier question, or perhaps because it is purely hypothetical. “The first one,” they reply. However, this question, which seems to be only about a “what if” situation, has a basis in reality. This question is a thinly veiled comparison between the religious leaders (who promise to do God’s will, but don’t), and the sinners (who initially reject God’s will, but repent) (verse 32).

By answering correctly, the religious leaders have exposed the truth of their situation, and have essentially passed judgment on themselves. In their refusal to accept Jesus, they have failed to do God’s will, and they have failed to repent.

In the Gospel, the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities quickly escalates, setting in motion the chain of events that leads to his crucifixion. Jesus had a clear sense of direction and purpose that was not shaken by conflict and controversy. He did not choose his path based on what would make him popular or prevent criticism. He did not back down when he was challenged; instead, he zeroed in on what was central: obedience to the will of God, shown not by intention, but action.

Which of the two sons in the parable did the will of the father? Although the religious leaders offered the “correct answer,” one could also say that neither of those sons completely fulfilled the will of the father. In the Gospel, the son who fulfills the father’s will is the one who is obedient from start to finish, the one who is acclaimed as Son of God at his baptism (Matthew 3:17) and at the cross (Matthew 27:54). By his death and resurrection, this Son is given all authority in heaven and earth, and commissions his followers to join in carrying out God’s will (see Matthew 28:18-20).

Discussion Questions

  • Why were the religious leaders challenging Jesus? Why did Jesus challenge the religious leaders? Do you think Jesus is practicing “tough love” with them? Why or why not?
  • Imagine that you are the first son in the parable that Jesus told. Why might he have said “no” to his father’s request that he work in the field? What might have led him to change his mind?
  • Imagine that you are the second son in the parable that Jesus told. Why might he have said “yes” to his father’s request? Why might he have changed his mind and not gone to work after all?
  • In what ways did each of the sons in the parable fail to do their father’s will? What role does repentance play in this story?
  • Why do you think Jesus is telling this parable? What point is he trying to get across to the religious leaders? What message does this parable have for you?

Activity Suggestions

Elevator witness
Ask each person to create and write a 1- to 2-minute “elevator speech” (as some business people call it) that expresses to another person who Jesus is. The idea of an elevator speech is that a business person would have a 1-minute presentation memorized so that if they were in an elevator with someone and needed to tell them what they do and who they are, they’d be prepared. The exercise requires each person to focus carefully on what is important about Jesus and their faith, and to put their beliefs into clear, understandable language.

  • Practice the elevator witnesses with each other and get feedback on how the person listening felt and was able to understand what you were saying about your faith.
  • Encourage each other to be ready to use their brief statement of witness as a way of inviting another person to be more curious or to enter into a longer conversation with you about faith.
  • Use the elevator witness statements in a worship liturgy as the confession of faith or creed.
Closing Prayer

Gracious God, you have loved us when we have disappointed you. You have stood by us when we have tried to skip out or hide from you. We give thanks for your great love and forgiveness that we never deserve but still receive as a gift from you each day. Please help us to be loving, forgiving, fair, wise, and generous in the ways that your son, Jesus Christ, has shown us. In his name we pray. Amen

Contributed by Pastor Julie A. Kanarr
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
Port Angeles, WA