The Biblical Way of Assessing Spiritual Gifts

While this is a long essay, there was still no way as I was writing it to include every detail. Please give me your feedback, especially constructive criticism. What I have to say about spiritual gifts is not what you may typically hear in many circles. I’m convinced that this way of understanding spiritual gifts is truer to what the texts actually say about them. I’m also convinced that this understanding is vastly more beneficial for our vision of who God is and who we are as his community than some of the more common views. However, I’m of course limited in my understanding of God and in my ability to interpret the biblical text. So I invite your help. Thanks for reading!


“Spiritual gifts” are widely regarded as those particular abilities that are given by God’s Spirit to individuals when they become believers. Since these gifts are listed for us in the New Testament, our responsibility–as the discussion regularly goes–is to discover for ourselves which one(s) we have so that we can then engage in the appropriate activities to put our gifts to use. So-called “spiritual gifts assessment” tests have become a popular way for Christians to try to make this

There are significant problems with this view, and foremost among them is that it’s not at all found in the New Testament.

But, there is talk in the New Testament about the Spirit working among God’s people in such a way that it means this: We should be able to assess how God is at work in each individual part of the community through the gifts that each person has been given.

So, what is this biblical way of “assessing spiritual gifts” all about?



The New Testament passages that routinely feature in discussions about what we call “spiritual gifts” are all written by Paul, and the most significant one by far is found in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church.

Since New Testament epistles are, in a major sense, arguments in which the author is making a case for something, we have to ask, as we would in any argument that we’re trying to understand, Why did Paul bring that up?

One of Paul’s chief concerns in this letter is unity among the followers of Jesus at Corinth. The immediately surrounding parts of the letter are, after all, about what is happening during their corporate worship when they share in the ceremonial meal that Jesus inaugurated. It appears that when they gather, some members are being disrespected, excluded, and basically devalued.

Paul considers it important in light of this problem that the Corinthians not remain ignorant about spiritual things (v. 1). Since, as he writes, no one can even make the basic Christian confession and submit to Jesus’s lordship apart from the one Holy Spirit that is at work among them (v. 3), if anything is happening among the Corinthian believers it is because the Spirit of the one God to whom they all belong is working through them.

So how can they know that they are indeed already unified because of the living, moving, active presence of the one God, referred to here as the “Spirit”? What can Paul show them so that their first question becomes about how they are they living into that which most powerfully and completely unifies them already?

As part of his solution, Paul tells them that yes, they are all quite different from each other, and indeed, when they gather, there are varieties of “gifts,” “services,” and “workings” that are observed. These three terms are basically used synonymously, with Paul also describing them as “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good” (vv. 4-7).

For example, he says, one person over here speaks wisdom, another over there speaks about knowledge, another over here speaks about faith, another over there heals, another works miracles, another prophesies, another discerns, another speaks in other languages, another interprets. And all of this “by the one Spirit,” as Paul emphasizes repeatedly.

Paul doesn’t let the Corinthians forget that which we so often lose track of. We are prone to read the biblical story (and even look at the stories of our own lives) and forget who the main character is. This is about God. We want to begin and end our conversations about what the Gospel is with our own sinfulness and our own salvation, while the Gospel is the message of good news about Jesus as Lord of the world, not a message about our problem and the solution to the problem (though what the Gospel means for us certainly does include that). In much the same way, we want to make a discussion about how God gifts the community through his Spirit into a discussion about what spiritual abilities we can now claim for ourselves. All when in fact the conversation is actually about the one God who has always meant to make a people (1 Samuel 12:22), and how God is doing just that among actual communities.

Notice too, that Paul assumes that these gifts/services/workings (i.e., manifestations of the Spirit at work for the good of all of them as a community) are verifiable on their part. They can already see these things taking place among them, even if they are only glimmers of what could be.



The point is certainly not, then, that these ways in which the Spirit is at work through them, like speaking in other languages or healing, should be happening, but, since the church members haven’t gone off by themselves and taken their spiritual gifts assessment tests, they don’t know what they should be up to.

Rather the point is who this Spirit as the only source of these gifts actually is, and what this then means for the Corinthians’ life together as a community. Their communal life should reflect who this God is and what God is up to in the world. For them as for us, this calls for unity.

As with any theology, any statement that we make about God, how the Spirit is at work among our community is not something we can access through pondering it by ourselves but by engaging in the pursuit of a faithful life lived in service to neighbor, and to our God who empowers us on this journey and equips us for our tasks.

With the way that many parts of the church in our own time deal with the idea of “spiritual gifts” with assessment tests and other ways of discovering your spiritual gift(s), way too much stock is placed in our own understanding of ourselves and we miss what is actually the most important lesson that Paul is teaching the Corinthians: Open your eyes to see how God is at work through others–the same Spirit equipping them for their role in the community is the same Spirit who is active in you, even as we all play our own particular parts.



In light of all of this, Paul’s point is also not that the Corinthians are supposed to figure out what their gifts are so that they can serve God through engaging in the appropriate activities. It’s rather that, in their working together to become unified as the body of Christ, they realize that God is at work in such a way that it reveals how every single member plays a special, crucial, undeniably valuable role. So, no more disrespecting, excluding, and devaluing each other. It has no basis–not with the God we serve who is at work in all sorts of ways, but especially in our service to each other as a community. (As a side note, it makes perfect sense in Paul’s argument that the very next chapter is about what love actually is.)

After all, this is about the Holy Spirit, the divine pneuma, which is a word chosen by the New Testament authors not because it refers to something static (such as a gift lying dormant until we happen to discover it), but because it is the word for wind, which is an invisible force that is always on the move. After all, Paul in his own language doesn’t actually refer to his topic here as “spiritual gifts”–he talks about them as manifestations of the Spirit, or simply as gifts (the word here actually means something like “expressions of grace”), services, and workings. God is revealed in God’s moving activity among people–what in the world has led us to believe that we can best detect God at work by sitting down to answer some questions about ourselves as individuals and examining the test results?

Paul doesn’t make this argument about the Spirit’s gifts/services/workings so that I can gaze inwardly and determine what gifts I have so that I can then make decisions for my own life based on that knowledge. This is not about what I should try to see in myself, but about what I must see in the person who may have been relegated to the corner but–as hard as it may be to believe–is my sibling in the Holy Spirit community.



Since it is has become so common to hear how important it is to know what your spiritual gifts are, but this is not actually the biblical message, where did the idea come from? I haven’t done the research on tracking the origin of this view, but I can go ahead and make a few clarifications that would help us begin to see what is the biblical vision.

A regular feature of teaching about spiritual gifts is that Christians receive them at the moment they become believers, but Paul says nothing of the sort. Aside from the fact that the New Testament as a whole isn’t as concerned about this point in our lives as much as we are, it appears that this teaching is based in the assumption that these gifts are permanent. If they’re permanent, they must be given at some other point than simply when need arises, so conversion tends to be the go-to timeframe. But nowhere does Paul say that you’ll always have a particular gift, or that you’re not gifted by the Spirit in all sorts of different ways all the time or at different times. As Gordon Fee points out, the plural used in Paul’s Greek words for gifts/services/workings “probably means that these gifts are not permanent, but each occurrence is a gift in its own right” (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God 166).

Likewise, another problem is that we take the different gifts/services/workings/manifestations of the Spirit that Paul lists and make them the total inventory of possibilities for how the Spirit gifts people. But in reading Paul, it’s necessary to realize that when Paul provides lists, he is never exhaustive. Just because Paul lists ways that we sin (as he is prone to do), doesn’t mean he’s covered all the ways that we could possibly be sinful. And just as he provides lists of virtues or the ways that the Spirit of God empowers us, doesn’t mean he has exhausted all of the possibilities there, either.

In his lists, Paul is actually giving examples in order to paint a picture of what it means to be in rebellion against God, or to live faithfully, or to be gifted by the Spirit. With how difficult it would be to assign a proper name to all of the ways that we could possibly sin, how much more so would it be difficult or rather impossible to name most of the ways that the Spirit gifts and empowers us, much less to even be aware of them.

Again, Paul never says that you will know what your spiritual gift(s) are, nor that it is incumbent upon you to discover your spiritual gift(s). The Spirit is at work among faithful people surrendered to God, thankfully in ways that are not restricted to our limited understanding.

When you truly hear the biblical text by taking into proper account the context of Paul’s argument and the real nature of his concerns, Pauline exegete Gordon Fee’s words about what he describes as “[o]ne of the fads among evangelicals in the final decades of the twentieth century …  of finding your spiritual gift” ring all the more true when he admits, “I could not imagine Paul understanding what was going on at all!” (163)



Since Paul is not concerned with individual members of the community knowing what spiritual gifts they have, as he hasn’t said anything to indicate that it’s their responsibility to find them or that it’s even possible to always know what they are, it is crucial to take into account that which he has emphasized is his concern. Paul writes about these spiritual gifts/services/workings and manifestations of the Spirit for the sake of unity and the functioning together of a body “for the common good” (cf. vv. 12-31). It is much more beneficial for the Corinthians and for us to know that each of us is gifted and plays important parts in the body of Christ than it is for individuals to be able to claim a particular ability.

Paul may be more concerned with the action of prophecy within a community than he is with a particular person being a prophet, much less he or she being able to determine that she or he is a prophet. So it’s not primarily a matter of personal discovery or even personal ownership, either. We want to talk about “my” spiritual gifts, when Paul would be asking about our gifts as a community. If someone has the gift of prophecy, the first thing this means is that the community has a prophetic voice.

One other passage in Paul in particular shows how this is primarily a matter of the community, that what really counts as a “spiritual gift” isn’t necessarily something that enables someone to perform a particular role or function, it doesn’t have to be something someone always has, and it doesn’t always have to come what we would think of as “straight” from the Spirit. In Romans 1:11-12, Paul writes, “I long to see you that I may impart to you (plural) a gift of the spirit to strengthen you (plural), “that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours (plural) and mine.”

What we see here in Romans is not that particular individuals in the community have been gifted by the Spirit as they became believers individually, and now they have to find out what they are so they can take appropriate action. Instead, we see here in Romans that the spiritual gift would come as they experience as a community shared time with Paul. Also, the gift that Paul anticipates imparting is that there would be mutual encouragement and strengthening of those believers in that time in that place and in those circumstances. It’s not something you would find on a spiritual gifts assessment test, and to try to do so would miss the point entirely.

So if you want to know what your spiritual gifts are, it’s the case with discovering anything else theological, such as the more basic question of God’s existence, or even God’s relevance—join the community and do this thing, take this journey with us, and trust that you are equipped and empowered by God’s Spirit as we all are. Maybe someone else will see particular gifts/services/workings in you, but more importantly, perhaps you will see the ways that the Spirit is at work in someone else. And most importantly, maybe you’ll have the assurance that it is happening even if you don’t know it, or you won’t know what to call it even if you do.

Footnote: There is no distinction made in the Bible between what we think of as “spiritual” and “natural” gifts. Someone may be what we would call “naturally” good at developing plans and may also be what we might want to call “spiritually” capable of healing. Aside from the fact that this is grounded in our arbitrary distinguishing between what is miraculous or not, in whatever way the Spirit’s activity is manifested for the common good of the community, that it is a gift. Everything is a gift. And anything through which God works is spiritual in nature, and that’s the most important thing that could be said about it.


A Pure Ambition: Being About the Work

My Bright Abyss by Christian WimanWriting is something I envision myself doing more than I actually do it.

I have thoughts on certain topics that I believe I should make available for people to read: what the Bible is, for example, or the significance of the fact that Jesus taught in parables for how we think about God, or church and salvation as  inclusion, or what humanity is about.

I am even convinced that a fictional story about Memphis, Tennessee during the Civil War era and the years soon after is waiting to be written– or perhaps unearthed from the richly complicated world that Memphis was during that time. I also believe, although the subject matter belongs outside the realm of my expertise, that it falls upon me to write that story.

No matter how far I have gotten–or not gotten–with these projects, the work to be done is my motivation for writing.

I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided–to add any other motivation to this would be to exploit the work. Either I’m fully interested in and invested in the questions to be answered and the stories to be told, or, I’m seeking the next stepping stone on my career path. Or I’m using it as a way to impress people. And then I’m not about the work. The work is about me.

I readily admit that my ambition is such that my confidence in the value of the work to be done leads me to believe that there are some things I have to write that people should read.

Now that’s quite a remarkable statement I’ve just made. In a world in which endless streams of prose are available through our keyboards, I’m actually surprised I can say that.

But I can only say that, and be justified in doing so, if I’m all about the work, and not if the work is about me.

So how do we justify, and how would we ever manage to find genuine virtue in, “how to get more traffic on your blog”?

Here’s the struggle: I want that, because I want the work to be about me.

But, God forbid. Seriously. Goodness and virtue and a life well-lived come through generous enrichment of the shared human experience, not through pouring into that which I only end up hoarding for myself.

I have to decide, and put some energy into the decision, to not live for the number of followers, likes, mentions, or favorites. That’s a master I refuse to serve.

I’ve been reading bits here and there of the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.

Wiman writes:

I once believed in a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self … the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of ‘ambition’? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves … So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.

Were Wiman and I to ever have a conversation about this, I would submit that it’s actually quite important to have a name, a face, and a story behind what is written. Every work of art or piece of craftsmanship is in some sense communication, and in communication it’s important to know who we’re speaking with. Names are not the problem, and so anonymity is not the solution.

Wiman cuts to the heart of the issue, however, right there in that last sentence.

Silent Retreat Reflection – Peace

A couple Saturdays ago, I sat down to breakfast and ate the best biscuit I’ve ever had, but I couldn’t tell anybody.

The Joy of Silence

My friend Michelle who encouraged me to attend ended up joining the Advisory Board of the retreat center. She took this photo on her retreat last year and is in charge of the retreat’s presence on social media.

I, along with everyone around me, had agreed to refrain from speaking since the evening prior and until lunchtime the next day.

About fifteen of us were participating together in a Silent Weekend Retreat at (the aptly-named) Our Lady Queen of Peace Retreat Center in Stanton, Tennessee.

So, on that Saturday morning, soft music played and we enjoyed our food with the morning sun rising over the spring landscape. I didn’t get to compare my experience with that of someone else, I couldn’t Instagram it, nor did I have any device at all to let everyone know what an enjoyable time I was having.

I just sat, shared a meal, and truly tasted the best biscuit I have ever eaten.

Over the past year, my friend Michelle, who keeps a great blog over at Pen and Hive, had been telling me about her experience at the first Silent Weekend Retreat that Our Lady Queen of Peace had held in the spring of last year.

I knew that if I had the opportunity to participate in the next one, I would have to take it.

With my phone in my glovebox and nothing with me but hotel-stay necessities, my Book of Common Prayer/Bible combo, and a few carefully selected books , I set out into the hours before me.

I could not have anticipated then how much the silent hours would have to say to me, and how so much something could have come out of seemingly nothing.

This will be the first in a series of posts about what I gathered from my time spent in silence, or at least, what I gathered from the silence that can now be put into words.

These five posts are each going to be focused on a certain theme, and you’ll soon discover a certain (mildly regrettable) pattern; when I was sharing about the retreat upon my return, I realized I kept using p-words. Of course, I thought that would be appropriate for a blog series.

So, my first theme from the retreat (and my first p-word) is peace.

The weather welcomed me to take a seat by the pond, partly shaded under the newly sprouted leaves overhead. This is where I spent most of the nearly two days.

The silence I became acquainted with by that pond seemed like it had a personality, as if it was a character I was spending the weekend with, considering the way it interacted with me differently through various stages.

Perhaps the earliest of these stages was relief. I was relieved to be away from schedules, distractions, the possibility of anything which might add complexity, complication, uncertainty–the raw materials out of which I am so prone to produce worry.

There was nothing that could come up that I would have to respond to, and there was nothing that could have demanded my attention.

There was no striving, there was no grasping. I had everything I needed.

Here, any conflict or unrest would be of my own making. And anything I lacked would reveal just how much I had.

It strikes me: we’ve never really known peace, and yet, we can identify it.

Perhaps it is this: that peace is what we’re made for, and it is that to which we’re ultimately destined.

Our hope is anchored there, and our anticipation makes us ache. Sometimes, we get glimpses.

They are never complete.

Tasting and seeing more than experiencing and having.

But, only in the present time.

When, Where, and with What the Kingdom of God Matters

All the time, everywhere, in everything.

There we go — the answer to the question right at the beginning. “All the time,” “everywhere,” and “everything” … keeping it rather simple.

It was obvious anyway, what the answer was. No need to build up to it as if I was going to say anything different from what you expected. And there also is no need for us to go through the trouble of dividing up “all the time” into some times, “everywhere” into some places, and “everything” to some things.

Yet, this is what we do.

Yep, we can do some pretty impressive work on “all the time,” “everywhere,” and “everything,” especially when we use them to talk about what God has to do with us.

My home is the American South. For many of us here to be brutally honest about what we believe in regards to when, where, and with what God’s dominion has something to say, we would end up with something like, “Thank you, God, for letting me feel good about voting Republican, holding conservative values, and going to heaven when I die, but you’ve got nothing to say about the food on my plate and how it gets there, the time I spend (or don’t spend) advocating for the victimized, or the ways I’m exploiting and abusing the earth instead of taking care of it and ruling over it on your behalf, as you created me to do.”

When, where, what?

Sometimes, some places, some things.

But what about how, and who?

What about, when God says something, how does he say it? Or, when God wants to do something, how does he do it?

What if the how question has a who answer? What if the kingdom of God comes through all of human life–through human work and human rest? Or is it that God only matters for religion, so that we are accountable to God to be Christians but not accountable to God to be proper humans? To do and become what we were created for in the first place?

The kingdom of God means more all the time than it does at any one time, it comes everywhere instead of remaining in only some places, and it has something to say about everything–not just some things.

Clothes and Palm Sunday

Today is named for palm branches, which must have been the best party favors available in first-century Jerusalem when Jesus was welcomed into the city as if they were welcoming their king.

In most churches on Palm Sunday, leafy branches are waved around and brooches in the shape of the cross made from bark are pinned to our lapels as we welcome Jesus as king at the beginning of the week that will end with his rejection and death.

Palm branches are explicitly mentioned in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and John. Mark does mention “branches of the field,” but Luke makes no mention of any branches at all.

As I’ve noticed this for the first time as I’ve read over the Gospel accounts this morning, this is not to say that palm branches aren’t as important as we think. But, I’ve also noticed something else for the first time:

Taking all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday into account, what the disciples and the crowds do with their clothes is a more prominent feature of these accounts than what they do with branches.

In Matthew and Mark, the disciples put their clothes on the animal (animals in Matthew) for Jesus to sit on, and the crowds take their clothes and spread them on the road for Jesus to ride on. In Luke, where no branches are mentioned, clothes are still mentioned–they are laid upon the animal and spread out on the road (in Luke it appears that it’s only the disciples who do this).

Only in John, who so often is the exception, are palm branches brought out to welcome Jesus but clothes aren’t mentioned at all. Overall, however, there is a whole bunch of clothes being given up.

I doubt that branches–whether from the field or from palm trees–were any more valuable in first-century Jerusalem than they are today.

But our clothes. The crowds weren’t bringing out what they had set aside to take to the Salvation Army, they were taking off the clothes they were wearing–probably their outer layer, which, just like for us today, would be the most expensive layer.

I’m not sure what I think or even want to say about this observation, other than simply sharing that as I’m waving my palm branch outwardly, I’ll be doing my best to inwardly strip away my Sunday best down to my undershirt for it all to be trod underfoot as Jesus comes to be enthroned.

Afterward, maybe I’ll be thinking about next year’s Ash Wednesday, as once again, I’ll kneel, be reminded that I’m going to die, that I’m from dust and I’m returning to dust. What difference will it make for me to think of the cross of ashes on my forehead to be made of what’s left of what I had given up, to welcome my king …?

The Parable of the Two Sons (the one Jesus told and the one he didn’t)

Thanks to the hard-working, exhausted Asbury-Memphis students at Christ United Methodist Church for letting me share with them this morning on my favorite parable.

Confession: I’m slightly jealous of you …Photo credit:

When I was doing what you are doing—reading, studying, discussing God, the Bible, the church — I loved it. When I graduated from Asbury several years ago, I was so tired, but I do miss it.

Whether or not you miss this when you finish — that’s more up in the air — you are probably learning about theology—“words about God”—in order to prepare for a ministry in which you will be using “words about God”: in Bible studies, Sunday school lessons, prayer sessions, blog posts, newsletter reflections, Tweets—sermons … What we do in the church is so very often focused on words, thoughts, and ideas.

With all the emphasis on words, thoughts, and ideas in ministry and in preparation for ministry, and, with all of ministry and all of our lives ultimately being about the ways that we are faithful to Jesus and his mission in our world—the question should be posed and posed regularly: Are we being faithful to Jesus merely—or even mainly—by saying, or even just hearing, the right words?

Now, I love words, thoughts, and ideas.

And it works out well that I love words, thoughts, and ideas because they are indeed absolutely essential to the faith in Jesus that we share. It would be nothing without them.

And don’t even get Jesus started on words, thoughts, and ideas.

He clearly had a fondness for them. He used them well and he used them often. It’s hard to picture Jesus, and impossible to read a Gospel, without everything he taught through his words: questions (more often rhetorical than not), aphorisms, riddles, proclamations, announcements, blessings, curses, parables.

And in one short, simple, often overlooked parable, Jesus addresses the question of how our words and our faithfulness relate to each other: “‘What do you think about this?” he says. “A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ (Matthew 21:28-31)

To understand and feel the effect of the parable that Jesus tells, it might help us to consider for a moment the parable that Jesus doesn’t tell: He doesn’t tell a parable about a son who says he’ll go and goes, and a son who says he won’t go and doesn’t go.

In this parable that Jesus doesn’t tell, you’d still have one son fulfilling the will of the father for him to go and work in the vineyard, and one son who doesn’t. With this parable that he doesn’t tell, Jesus could still make what seems to be his point: that it’s the one who goes to work in the vineyard who does what the father wants.

And if you think about it, this parable, if Jesus had told it this way, would be boring.

But the parables of Jesus, like Jesus himself, are never boring. They always come with a twist, and they always are meant to have an effect on the hearer. More than just inform, they amuse. They perplex. They surprise. They subvert. They challenge. They indict.

Like any metaphor, they “tease the mind into active thought.” They are Jesus’s characteristic manner of teaching; they are his personality, his genius, and his mission wrapped up into stories and similes; they are even the kingdom of God coming in speech.

The parables are doing something to the hearer just as much or more than they are meaning something. Meaning can’t be extracted from the prose, or at least it shouldn’t. Lyrics can’t be separated from the music, or at least they shouldn’t. The content can’t be dissected from the form, or at least it shouldn’t. It messes everything up.

This means that you really can never successfully explain or teach a parable. In fact, it’s probably best to just read a parable to explain it, and hear a parable to understand it instead of trying to say anything about it. So, future preachers: Don’t ever preach on a parable, ever. Take my advice.

So, anyway, back to preaching about our parable: Had Jesus told a parable about a son who says he will go work in the vineyard as his father is asking him to do and he goes and works in the vineyard, and a son who says that he won’t go work in the vineyard as his father is asking him to do and he doesn’t go work in the vineyard, Jesus would still be able to give us a picture of what it meant do the will of the father, and we would (hopefully) be able to determine accurately which one did what the father wanted.

But, this would be a rather twistless parable. And so it wouldn’t be much of a parable at all. In the parable that Jesus actually tells, however, the twist appears to be that both sons are in the wrong, neither son’s response is perfect, but in the end, one son does the will of the father and one son doesn’t.

And, as we submit and do what the parables are designed to make us do, to think and then think about our thinking, we realize that it’s not at all difficult to determine who does the will of the father in this story. The one who works in the vineyard is wait-for-it the one who works in the vineyard.

But, to borrow a note from the way parables work themselves as works of art, what is the father’s will—not just in content (which could always change) but in form? In other words, whatever the situation is—whatever the “what” is—what is the “how,” or the way, of doing the father’s will? Is it making the right statement about how they are supposedly going to respond to what he has asked of them? That they will only proclaim or confess properly by hitting all the right bullet points? That they say yes at the right time and about the right things?

What is doing the father’s will? With the parable that Jesus tells, as opposed to the parable that Jesus didn’t tell, we get to discover for ourselves that the father’s will has not as much to do with words as much as it has to do with obedience.

How the sons answer the father’s command to work in the vineyard doesn’t really count for anything apart from how they were actually going to obey him, or not. The form, the how, of what the father wills is not so much faith as what can be put into words, as it is about faithfulness to the father in relationship.

Faith as faithfulness is exactly what is captured in the biblical languages and texts but what has so often been overlooked in our interpretations of them. So much so that Paul and James have been sometimes seen to be at odds with each other, with Paul supposedly speaking of faith as only belief and James speaking of the absolute necessity of faithful deeds.

But actually, Paul would agree with James when he says, “If you say to someone in need, go in peace, be warmed, and be filled without giving them the things they need so that they are warmed and filled, then you aren’t doing anything! If you have faith without faithfulness, if you have belief without works, confession without response, it is dead faith” (paraphrased James 2:15-17).

Neither son’s response is perfect in this story. It’s not that we should do everything that the first son does. We aren’t being set loose to say and confess and teach and preach whatever we want, as long as the vineyard is being worked in, so to speak.

What it points us to is to consider the real purpose of doctrine, theology, teachings – to make you like the first son who says the right thing but doesn’t do the right thing? Or even the one who doesn’t say the right thing but does the right thing?

It is much better, we see, to be like the teller of the parable himself (the third son in this situation, if you will) the one whose confession and statement and proclamation of faith not only matches but also intertwines and is rather indistinguishable from his faithfulness.

Where our faith, our convictions, what we believe and hold to be true about God in Jesus Christ are indistinguishable from our faithfulness, our relational fidelity to God, it is there that we find ourselves as more than theologians, more than vineyard workers—we find ourselves there as witnesses, those whose entire lives testify to the world God’s coming kingdom of justice, righteousness, and peace as much as they are a part of bringing it in.

If parables have a twist, like we’ve seen, and if parables perplex, indict, and challenge — who is that happening to here, when Jesus tells his parable?

They are the chief priests and elders of the people. They are the ones who must admit that when it comes down to it, the first son who said he wouldn’t go but did is the one who did the will of the father.

Since it becomes clear that Jesus is telling the parable against them, the implication is that as they must admit that the first son is the one who does the will of the father, they must also admit that they are the second son—the one who says the right thing but doesn’t do it.

They are the ones who should know better—they are the ones who should be the ones that say they will go and work in the vineyard and actually do it!

That’s why, Jesus tells them that the tax collectors and harlots — the ones who are not as likely to say the right thing, to make the right confession — are going into the kingdom before them, because they are doing something that the first son does that the second son doesn’t — Repent.

The place where what we believe about God leads us to the fulfillment of his will is always marked by repentance—turning from our own way to the way of God.

During this Lenten season we let the words of Jesus spoken over us on Ash Wednesday resound through every moment: “Repent and believe in the good news.” Making a good confession, and doing the will of God.

Seedbed Review of Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories By Jesus

I enjoyed reviewing the newest book by of my favorite scholars–Amy-Jill Levine–for Seedbed.Short Stories By Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine

Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar for whom providing a proper representation of early Judaism as we interpret the Christian texts seamlessly weaves into the help she provides Jews and Christians in relating with one another and, being faithful to their own traditions, in our own time.

Her new book about Jesus’s parables is outstanding.

Click here to read the review!