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: www.biblestudy1.com

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.

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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!

Preachingthegospel

St. Paul had a handy verb at his disposal: euangellizo 

The noun form is the word “good news,” usually translated like so or as “gospel” in our English translations.

We would therefore translate the verb euangellizo with something like “preach/proclaim/announce the good news.”

We don’t have an English word to correspond to the idea of “doing” good news. So we have to add some word to denote the act of relaying whatever good news someone has to report.

We have to do this, for example, in Romans 1:15. Paul has just been expressing in his letter to the church in Rome how much he longs to be with them, and as he lays out all his reasons he says, “This is why I’m so eager to [preachthegospel] to you also in Rome.”

Paul is writing to believers in the good news. These people have heard the message before. But Paul is chomping at the bit to be in their presence so that he can share that message.

I’ll just go ahead and state the problem blatantly: Sharing the good news, doing the gospel message, or “preachingthegospel,” is far too often held as something that comes on the front end alone, or that is only for the people who haven’t heard it. And having to bring in a word like “preach” or “proclaim” so that we can understand a foreign word like euangellizo irritates the problem because these extra words tend to bring in this shade of meaning that gives the impression that we’re referring to that one time, initial announcement that is done for the people who “need to hear.”

But, I’ll also point out along with the problem the opportunity for how our language can be shaped for the better: When we read, say, and think of “preaching the gospel,” we should understand it as a lesson, a pledge, a reminder, statement–an exclamation, even–that sticks around longer than breaking news and actually goes deeper than hearing, and into doing.

We should take into proper account that the message is utterly repeatable and cannot be worn out on anyone, because a faithful response to the good news is not just something that has been discovered or a belief that has been accepted–a faithful response to the good news is rather more like obediential hearing–what Paul calls the “obedience of faith” at a couple of points (Romans 1:5; 16:26).

Those who “need to hear” are not just those who have not heard. Paul expresses his longing, not to be with a group of those “who have not heard,” but to be with a group of believers–and, not so that he can pass on to them the latest church-growth techniques or because he’s the highly sought after keynote speaker for this year’s conference, but because he anticipates participating with them in the reality of Jesus’s lordship and what it means for the world.

Action items: Remembering to preach the gospel to those who have heard, and continuing to hear the gospel even with those who haven’t.

The Best Theology That Can Be Done

“Theology.” If you’re a Christian, and you hear this word, you will probably respond to it in one of two ways:

1) “I’ve totally got this.”

2) “I’ve totally not got this.”

In one case, your ears perk up. Answering questions about God is a hobby or profession of yours.

Or, in the other case, you immediately wonder where the more qualified people are. Preferably seminary-trained.theology

What’s the difference between these two kinds of people?

The first is confident in their understanding of God. The second is not confident in their understanding of God.

Now understanding God, like understanding anything else, is of course a good thing.

God does make himself known, after all.

But the process of understanding God is more a journey in worth of pursuit than it is a destination to which we can arrive.

And everybody can and should take this journey.

Faith, trust, and a lot of uncertainty. This journey sounds like any fruitful relationship in which what keeps you engaged is the mystery that remains.

At the heart of faith, you’ll find that someone is trusted rather than that something is known. Yes, it’s true what was said–“Faith seeks understanding.” But faith does not depend on understanding. Our traditions have given us creeds, doctrines, classes, and sermons. God comes and gives us stories, symbols, questions, and metaphors.

After all, shall we remember that one of the most important things to know about God is that most of God is unknowable? God is mostly unexplainable. Even the things that we think we can explain? We can’t. Try explaining grace, for example. A major lesson I have learned recently: I simply cannot do it.

If I wanted to be a good theologian (according to the popular definition), that should bother me. But it comforts and encourages me. How is this so?

In holding confidence in my understanding of God, confusion leads to bewilderment, and uncertainty leads to strandedness. In confidence in my lack of understanding of God, on the other hand, confusion and uncertainty open up to faith and trust.

Instead of some of us having confidence in our understanding of God, on this journey we can all find confidence in our lack of understanding of God. We would all look rather like the people Paul portrays us as in the early chapter of Romans. We are all on the same level. None has an advantage over the other. It would not just be theology “for the rest of us”–it would truly be theology for everyone.

A theology that puts us all on an even plane does not come in the form of a simplified version of what is known about God, but an acknowledgement that in our relationship with God, he is always in the process of becoming known.

So, if we can tweak the way we use the word “theology” for the moment according to its root terms God (theos) and word or utterance (logos) to denote simply what can be said about God, I’ll join all of my fellow theologians (aka “fellow travelers on this journey”) in admitting that “I don’t understand God.” And I’ll be doing the best theology that can be done.

How Abraham Needed Practice Seeing God

I don’t preach often, but I did today in The Table service at Christ United Methodist Church.

Our pastor for this service, Tom Fuerst, was preaching in the main services today, and for some reason is unable to preach at The Table and in the 11:00 service at the same time, so I was glad to help out and do this for the first time.The Table

I think we have lightning in a bottle at this service, and I’m excited about all the potential it has. It’s smaller than the other services at the church, and it fosters a more intimate atmosphere as we share in the ancient + modern liturgy which always culminates at communion, all as we’re encircled by all the stained glass windows in Wilson Chapel.

I’m thankful to have had the opportunity and for the patience of the congregation–there was quite a trip we needed to take with this passage and I’m glad we were able to make it all the way around to spend some time with Paul, and then reflect on how all of this truly leads to the table and our shared meal together.

Listen here.

Doubting Thomas

My friend and co-laborer at Christ United Methodist Church, Tom Fuerst, has gone to a much better place.

To get to the blog post I wrote for Tom's blog, you can also click on this picture of him just doing a great job with yard work.

To get to the post I wrote for Tom’s blog, you can also click on this picture of him just doing a great job with yard work.

Florida.

So while he’s out, he invited me to take part in a series on his blog about doubt and the Christian faith.

It was a real pleasure to participate.

He’s one of the best bloggers I know of, and I actually get to know him personally.

If you’d like to check it out, click here.

If you want to skip what I wrote, but you still want to read Tom’s blog, which I recommend, just start here.

What “prophet” means

“Prophet!”

All through my time at Asbury Seminary, across the courtyard or from down the hall, I would occasionally hear this word ring out in a rich baritone. It came from the African-accented voice which belonged to a fellow student Monroe who was from Liberia, and he was calling out to me. From the moment at new student orientation that I introduced myself to Monroe, I don’t remember a single time that he called me “Nathan.” Always “Prophet!”

A visual representation of a prophet.

A visual representation of a prophet.

Being called “Prophet,” however, had nothing to do with any clairvoyance on my part. I’m not really known for my ability to tell the future or to read your mind. This is not surprising. What actually may be surprising is that in the biblical tradition, people like Isaiah or Micah aren’t called prophets because of their clairvoyant ability, either.

We often think of prophecy as being about telling about the future, but our English word “prophet” comes from the Greek word “prophetes.” While we don’t have a very good idea of where the Old Testament Hebrew word navi comes from, this New Testament Greek word comes from its two components: “pro,” which means “for,” and “phemi,” which means “to speak.” While we have to be careful to not immediately equate where a word comes from with its meaning, this is good evidence that what the word prophetes means is “one who speaks for (someone else).” And in the Bible, that someone is God.

As it happens, this God is someone who is much more interested in wanting to have a conversation about the present than he does about the future.

The reason Monroe called me Prophet is because my name comes from the guy in the Old Testament who doesn’t come on the scene during the story of David’s adultery to tell the future as much as he comes on the scene to tell a story illustrating how God feels about what has already happened, and, what this means for David’s life in the present–“in the now time,” as Paul describes it–that slice of  time marked by the urgency which comes from God’s activity in the world.

(What this also means is that our prophecy material in the Bible, such as Ezekiel or Habakkuk in Old Testament, or Revelation  in the New Testament, isn’t primarily about telling the future, either. Let’s just let that point soak into our popular conception of biblical prophecy, with its electronic banking or Social Security numbers being the mark of the beast or Gog and Magog having something to do with Russia.)

That God wants to talk about what’s going on now says something to us and about us. It means that what God has to say isn’t about granting us secret foreknowledge. It means, as it meant for David, that what God wants to say to us challenges and disciplines and scolds us, and that it guides and encourages and comforts us. It doesn’t put us “in the know,” as much as it exposes us as people who are known.

Such is what happens when someone speaks for God.

What does God need in someone for him or her to speak for him? Special abilities? Or, a willing heart?

As J.D. Crossan writes, “An obedient prophet is a redundancy. A disobedient prophet is an oxymoron.”

Monroe called me Prophet because of my name, but if he called me “Prophet” because of anything about me, he would have been on the right track to do so because of something he would’ve seen about my character; Rightly or wrongly, it would have been a comment–or a challenge–about my openness, willingness, and humility to obey God.

Whatever category or function Jesus fulfills, he is always the ultimate representation. What this means is that Jesus was not the ultimate fortuneteller, but that he is the ultimate speaker for God.

What “prophet” actually means, then, shows us much about God–as he is situated within human life, in the present time, in this world–and it show us much about our own willingness to both speak for, and listen to, this God who speaks.