“But what do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ His son replied, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and told him the same thing. He replied, ‘I will, sir,’ but he didn’t go. Which of the two did the father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes will get into God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, but you didn’t believe him. The tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. But even when you saw that, you didn’t change your minds at last and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32)
This is the passage that we read and discussed this past Tuesday morning at Bible Study. For many of us, it is difficult to imagine that this short parable is anything other than a story in support of works righteousness. After all, the one who does the will of the Father actually “does” something, right? Given the story, it’s obvious that just saying you will “do” something is not enough. Action is required.
But if this is true, then salvation becomes a matter of our doing, or not doing, certain things. The latter being especially true of the church of my youth. You want to be saved, the church seemed to say, then don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t go to the movies or play cards, and especially do not dance, and never, ever swim with members of the opposite sex. While me may have sung the song “Jesus Paid It All.” we acted as though the debt of our sin was still before us, and that this mountain of debt could only be moved little by little by our own feeble attempts to be good and to do good works. Thank you Jesus for your grace, now please get out of my way while I try to whittle away at the evil within me and become good by the force of my own will.
And at first glance, the parable above appears to support this view. Doing is the be all and end all of a life lived in Christ. But as Robert Farrar Capon points out in his book “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment:” a “works-versus-words reading is a mistake. Jesus is on the subject of faith in his own exousia (authority), not on the subject of legalistic fine slicing by which a no that turns into a yes can be construed as a more meritorious work than a yes that turns out to be a no (page 444).”
Capon goes on to add that though this is a parable of judgment, the judgment in this parable and in all the parables of judgment falls only upon unfaith. To make his point he refers to the ending portion of the scriptures above which refer to John the Baptist. Capon asks what the basis of salvation is for the tax collectors and prostitutes. And by doing so, he makes it clear that salvation comes, not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding citizens, but because they believed (The tax collectors and prostitutes believed…). Finally Capon brings this reasoning to the parable in question by rephrasing the question Jesus asks.
Q: On which of these two sons will judgement fall?
A: On the second.
A: Because he did not do the will of his father.
Q: And what then is the father’s will?
A: [I quote from Jesus himself, in John 6:40]: “This is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him may everlasting life, and I while raise him up at the last day. (Page 445)
Saved by belief, by faith, alone in Jesus. Saved just because they believe in him. How much easier could it be? Of course that’s the problem. If it is too easy, we tend not to trust it’s efficacy. How can that be all that God wants or desires. It can’t be that simple, can it? And what does that mean, if it is true, for all the wonderful and good things that I do in my life? Are they nothing . . . worth nothing? And does this mean that anybody can waltz into the pearly gates just by believing in Jesus? They don’t have to do anything else? Well, that’s not fair. Even worse, it is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. This kind of “injustice” can be downright infuriating.
This attitude reminds me of a story in a book written by Louis Evely that I have. The book is That Man Is You, and in it Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:
The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.
All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”
For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this …” “I just cannot get over it!”
Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment.
And this brings me to the most powerful couple of paragraphs in Capon’s book, which in fact serves a summary of sorts for much of his teaching on Jesus’ parables so far. So please pardon the long quote that follows, although I think you find it an amazing read if you just take the time. Writing about the parable, Capon says:
And if you then expand upon the parable, you get an instant application of it to the life of the church in all ages. For no matter how much we give to the notion of free grace and dying love, we do not like it. It is just too . . . indiscriminate. It lets rotten sons and crooked tax collectors and common tarts into the kingdom, and it thumbs its nose at really good people. And it does that gallingly, for no more reason than the Gospel’s shabby exhaltation of dumb trust over worthy works. Such nonsense, we mutter in our hearts, such heartless, immoral folly. We’ll teach God, we say. We will continue to sing Amazing Grace in church; but we will jolly well be judicious when it comes to explaining to the riffraff what it actually means. We will assure them, of course, that God loves them and forgives them, but we will make it clear that we expect them to clean up their act before we clasp them seriously to our bosom. We don’t want whores and chiselers and practicing gays (even if they are suffering with AIDS) thinking they can barge in here and fraternize. Above all, we do not want drunk priests, or ministers who cheat on their wives with church organists, standing up there in the pulpit telling us that God forgives such effrontery . . .
Do you see now? We are second sons, elder brothers, respectable Pharisees, twelve-hour, all day laborers whose moral efforts have been trampled on . . . We are resentful at being the butts of the divine joke of grace that says nothing matters except plain, old, de facto, yes-Jesus faith. And when we institutionalize that resentment by giving the impression that the church is not for sinners and gainsayers, we are a disgrace to the Gospel — a bushel of works hiding the Light of the World. We are under judgment. (Pages 446 and 447)
We are under judgment, as surely as those “good people” in Jean Anouilh’s play. In a great reversal (one of many we see in the Gospel), those we think deserve the judgement and punishme
nt of an angry God get off scot free, while we, who are expecting the loving embrace of the Father, find ourselves outside of his grace. And not because God has withheld it either. No, by our actions we have excluded ourselves, we have rejected God’s mercy and grace for others, and by extension, for ourselves. And it is a grace and mercy that requires one thing, and one thing only. As Capon says, and this will be my last quote I promise:
The Father’s will for you — his whole plan of salvation — is that you believe in Jesus, nothing more. He has already forgiven you, he has already reconciled you, he has already raised you up together with Jesus and made you sit in heavenly places with him. And better yet, Jesus himself has already pronounced upon you the approving judgement of having done his Father’s will. But if you do not believe him — if you insist on walking up to the bar of judgment on your own faithless feet and arguing a case he has already dismissed — well, you will never hear the blessed silence of his uncondemnation over the infernal racket of your voice. “He who argues his own case has a fool for a lawyer” is true in any court. But in this court you will be more than a fool if you try that trick. You will be an idiot. There is no case. There is no evidence against you. And there is no courtroom to display your talents in. It is all quashed . . . the whole thing, you see, stands forever on its head: the last shall be first — just for believing. (Page 448)
In the end, faith and faith alone is all that matters.