Don: After the Pharisees demanded to know of Jesus the authority for His ministry, He recited a parable, now known as the parable of the Two Sons:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, 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 say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32)
As usual, Jesus began with a question: “What do you think?” The Pharisees had tried to trap Him with an earlier question, now He was setting one for them in return.
The key elements of the parable are the vineyard, the father, his two sons, and work needing to be done. The parable focuses on willingness to do the work vs. actually doing the work, though the ostensible focus is the two sons. The parable reminds us of the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is also a story about a father with two sons. The two parables have obvious parallels and are in many ways complementary.
The father in our present parable orders each son to go work in the vineyard, which is a metaphor for the message and mission of Jesus. The injunction to work is an injunction to be engaged in the message and mission of the father—of Jesus. The message and mission of Jesus is a call to humility and service and to obey the will of God. The elder son in the Prodigal parable elects to stay home and work in the family business, while the younger son chooses to abandon it. In the Two Sons parable, one says he will work but reneges on his promise, while the other refuses work but does so anyway. (Some translations say that he regretted his refusal; others, that he repented.)
The brothers’ responses are at the root of the trap that Jesus set for the Pharisees, in asking which of the sons did the will of his father while also telling the Pharisees that various sinners would get into the kingdom of God before they would. He was saying that the Pharisees talked the talk but did nothing, while self-acknowledged sinners walked the walk despite not fully understanding what they are doing. But the Pharisees thought their religious pedigree was sufficient grounds for salvation; that their descent from Abraham gave a free pass into the kingdom of God.
But what does the parable say about God?
First, it says that He is the God of all Mankind. No matter how we respond to His call for work—positively or negatively—God is still our Father. Whether or not we do His will, whether or not we even understand what His will is, and whether or not we repent our bad decisions, He is still our Father; and as our Father, He never stops to look out for us, as He looked out for His Prodigal Son. No matter how far we stray from our religious roots, He always welcomes us back with open arms and no questions asked.
Second, in the Two Sons parable, neither son was blameless. The first son’s petulance (“I won’t go!”) and the second son’s lie (“I’ll go”) are equally disrespectful. But neither was thrown out of the house. The parable suggests that this father was long-suffering and ever-forgiving. It means that all God’s children are sinners in need of the grace God gave so lovingly to His Prodigal Son. God’s acceptance of sinners is clear from Jesus’s preference for sinful tax collectors and prostitutes over self-righteous Pharisees.
We are all sinners in need of God’s grace, but the Pharisees at that time regarded tax collectors and prostitutes as the lowest of the low, so to say that God would accept and forgive such people is to say that God accepts any and everybody.
Finally, the parable tells us something about God’s view of religious intolerance and arrogance. We all tend to religious smugness—from the atheist, smug in his conviction that there is no God, to the Christian convinced that her religion is the only way to heaven. Notice that the parable does not feature a son who says “Dad, I’m happy to go to work for you” and sets out to do so.
Is it possible to be humble about God and certain about God at the same time? To share one’s feelings about God without being arrogant? Simultaneously to believe in yet be uncertain about God? Why does belief in God seem to require affirmation and constant re-affirmation?
David: Why is John the Baptist mentioned in the parable? Presumably it’s significant.
Jay: The trap Jesus set for the Pharisees just before He told the parable was in forcing them to say whether his baptism by John was inspired by God or by Man.
Donald: Can we be humble about God and at the same time be confident of our belief in Him? Confidently to proclaim our message as “the truth” seems to preclude humility. Perhaps the parable speaks about individual versus institutional beliefs and humility (of all Pharisees). Institutions—churches, groups—tend to be less humble than individual people. Churches proselytize because they think individuals need their message.
Jay: Does being sure about God simply mean believing in His existence as a God of mercy, love, grace, and forgiveness? Beyond that, it is harder to be sure about God’s thoughts and judgments concerning such things as what is a sin and what is not a sin, what is moral individual and group behavior, and what merits (or not) salvation. I think it is hard enough to be humble and simultaneously believe in God’s existence; but it is surely impossible to be humble and certain about what’s on God’s mind.
Donald: We find arrogance—confidence that steps over a line—unattractive. Humility strikes me as the opposite of arrogance. If people find in someone’s beliefs and actions an expression of love and goodness, they will be attracted by those attributes to that person.
David: I think one can be certain of the existence of God but not of His nature, His plan (or even if there is one), His message(s), and so on. Certainty of God’s existence seems to me to be no reason for arrogance. Arrogance arises from a claim to speak for God, which implies a claim to know the mind of God, which is as arrogant as arrogance can get.
Don: Could a church conceivably be based on uncertainty about God?
David: Yes!—See religious Daoism and Zen Buddhism! Scripture tells people what is in/on the mind of God. It leads to much arrogance and indeed to the violent imposition of religious beliefs and practices on non-members of certain religions.
Don: It seems to me that in the parable of the Two Sons, Jesus was dealing with just this issue of certainty about God, and He clearly came down on the side of humility. Yet our quest for knowledge about God seems insatiable. Humankind has always wanted to know more about God. The search seems practically hardwired into us. We can never get enough of it. Throughout the ages, in all cultures, people sought and seek to know God better through religious experience.
Donald: “Belief” is not the same as “knowing for a fact”, but in a group such as a church, belief assumes an aura of knowing. Individual group members may then feel justified in assuming the aura for themselves.
Jay: We do seem internally driven to find something spiritually bigger than ourselves. It affects all societies at all times and at all stages of advancement. In a way, that is evidence of the existence of God. But we want more than belief: We want to define God, to own Him, to bottle Him, and to make others drink from our bottle. Jesus pointed out through the parable that you can’t do that. Group (or what we have in previous discussions called “corporate”) belief tends to differ from individual belief. Our class seeks to examine just this difference. So we are searching, but not with any expectation of finding answers. A church formed on this basis would be an interesting church indeed.
Aishwarya: My grandparents believed so fervently that God would help when asked that, for them, it was more a statement of fact than of belief. In my smugness growing up, I ignored my grandparents’ call for humility and trust in God, and stopped believing that God would help me with (for example) my exams. I grew to question God and everything.
We crave to sense God, but there is no sensory evidence of God; there is only Scripture. We are sure of many things, such as that we will meet again next week. That certainty arises from sensory perception, but the closest we can get to sensory perception of God is perhaps in temple or church, or in retrospect when we ascribe an effect (such as a friend cured of a disease) to God as the probable cause. But in the absence of sensing God, we are uncertain of God. Uncertainty leaves us humble.
Don: Is education, intelligence, intellect, then an impediment to a connection with God? Our grandparents’ simple (simplistic?) view of our connection with God seems enviable compared to the attenuated view our modern intellect practically imposes on us. Have we over-educated ourselves, to the point that God means less to us than He did to our grandparents?
David: Perhaps the problem lies in the assumption that we are all seeking to know God. It seems to me what people ultimately seek is to understand the existence of “life, the universe, and everything” (see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Science increasingly satisfies that search, while spirit satisfies it less. Before science and objectivity, all we had was spirituality/religion and subjectivity. Existence was explained via religiously invented gods. Even today, the Chinese retain a belief in their pantheon of “earth gods” and turn to them for relief from (but not understanding of) the exigencies of existence.
Looking externally for signs of God—for divine authority—is I think misguided, because it seems to me clear that God is internal—He is inside each of us. If we search for Him internally, we are forced to see our true selves, as Jacob did. We are searching for Him when our conscience tugs at us—when we consider whether (or not) to answer our Father’s call to get to work, and whether to answer truthfully or with a lie. One of the two sons had a conscience: He petulantly refused at first, but evidently found something inside himself that made him change his mind. If the “something” was not God, then what was it? If he had looked out of the window, or under the bed, for a sign of whether he should obey his father, would he have found it? I think—with all the humility I can muster—not.
The Chinese have a different perspective on life, the universe, and everything than we in the West do. Our assumption that a God accounts for life, the universe, and everything is a cultural artifact. It is not a universal perspective, let alone a universal truth, like gravity or Planck’s Constant. What we all—Westerners, Easterners, Northerners, Southerners—do share is a common humanity and a common desire to understand how we came to be. This is not the same as saying that we share a common desire to find or understand God. That’s a cultural thing, and we have developed different cultures.
Jay: The desire for a god to better our lives is a very human desire. The problem is that we define “better” ourselves, rather than let God do it. To us, “better” is healthier, wealthier, wiser. But to God—as explained by Jesus and recorded in Scripture—“better” might be the enlightenment achieved by the “faith hall of famers” through terrible trial and tribulation. Our perspective on the “better” life does not incorporate tribulation and humility; rather, it fosters arrogance.
Don: A Muslim friend made it clear that to him, there was no question that his was the final religion, that Mohammed was the final prophet, that understanding of God is now complete and certain and closed to discussion. Such certainty has its attractions but is not without discomfort to some of us. I believe in a God of goodness and love but I would hesitate to subscribe to a God who prescribes how often I pray or what I should or should not eat.
Donald: It’s like going to the doctor. We don’t want a doctor who dithers in the uncertainty of differential diagnosis; we want one who will give us a bottle of pills that will make everything OK. We want our God in a bottle, too.
Don: We don’t want to go to a church that dillies and dallies about God. We look to it for authority. We would rather put up with its arrogance of certainty than with the humility of uncertainty. If uncertainty creeps into the church, we do our best to smother it and get it out of the way, because it is disabling.
Jay: We don’t want to die, physically or spiritually, so we go to the doctor to save our lives and we go to church to save our souls. Fear of our own death is the motivating factor behind uncertainty. But should not our concern be reserved rather for the deaths of others? I wish it were so, but I cannot claim it is so in my own case. Human nature intervenes. Our selves are the dearest thing to us, and this affects our perspective on what we want a church to be and how to treat others and how we want others to treat us. That is our condition as fallen wo/men. It is the carnal nature common to all. Recognizing our selfishness is critical to improving our behavior. But when we do recognize the selfishness of our true selves, all certainty flies out the window.
David: As it did for Jacob, when he wrestled with his inner God and suddenly realized that he did not know himself and how low he had fallen. Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses find God and His authority in the Koran and the Bible respectively (He is apparently not in both). If you are searching for God, you need look no further than the Koran or the Bible, they arrogantly believe. I cannot share such belief. If you are searching for God, you must look inside your self. And I suspect it is impossible to do that without utmost humility.
The etymology of authority is “creator, originator, author.” So in one sense Jesus cannot answer the Pharisees’ question of authority because the author is unique to—inside of—each one of them. Yes, it is the same God in everyone, but unless the individual has sought God inside himself, s/he cannot know the author. Jesus cannot (and, I think, would not anyway) make it easy for them, or for any of us.
Donald: I don’t care about the doctor’s diagnosis. I just want the pills. And if they work or seem to, then the doctor seems irrelevant. “Here, let me give you some of my pills. You don’t need to see the doctor at all!”
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