“‘Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you , the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’”

Matthew 21:31


Jesus tells this simple, rustic story on the day after Palm Sunday, and when you hear the story he tells, you don’t have to ask why he hasn’t much longer to live. The respectable scribes and the powerful Pharisees are the bad guys in Jesus’ little story. This is no way to win friends and influence people. He will be dead in four days.

“A man had two sons, and he asked one of them to work in the vineyard.” A couple of weeks ago we looked at a parable about a vineyard owner. In that story, the vintner was Robert Mondavi, a wine tycoon who has to hire an army of migrant workers to harvest his 1400 acres.   This is a different vineyard from that one though. In this week’s story, the vineyard is a family farm with ten acres and three employees; it’s a boutique winery: let’s call it Ebenezer and Sons Fine Wines.

The boss says, “Son, go work in the vineyard today. The southern ridge is ripe.” But the first son says, curtly, “I will not.” If it sounds rude to twenty-first-century American ears, think what it must have sounded like in a culture where a father’s spoken wish was a son’s infrangible command. Not long after his father leaves, however, this rude son regrets his blunt insolence and goes out to pick the grapes.

Under the now mistaken impression that he still needs someone to harvest the grapes, the boss says to his second son, “Son, go work in the vineyard today. The southern ridge is ripe.” The second son is just as abrupt as the first son, but far more courteous. “I go, sir,” is all he says. Notice that he is both quick and polite in his apparent compliance. “Sir,” he calls his father, a small obeisance the rude first son eschews. “I go, sir,” he says instantly and politely, but then doesn’t. The rude son is out there in the hot sun harvesting the grapes all by himself.

Jesus turns to the Pharisees and asks, “Which son did the will of his father?” Easy question. “The first son,” they answer instantly. But of course Jesus has just managed to get the Pharisees to hoist themselves on their own petard, because at least the way he frames the religious context, the whole ancient matrix of Jewish religious observance–Temple and Torah, kosher and Sabbath, prayer and praise, psalm and song–are like a compliant son who says the right thing but does the wrong thing, while scorned and impious delinquents like tax collectors and prostitutes play the part of a rude son who says the wrong thing but then does the right one, slouching guiltily into the vineyard at the last minute and somehow managing to gather a mash that will be aged to an exquisite Cabernet pleasing to God.

Can anybody here relate to this story? Does this little vineyard vignette ever recapitulate itself in your own family life? Anybody here have a charming acquiescent child and a cranky obedient one? Do you have a child who replies “Sir, yes sir, right way sir,” to every request, but then never manages to walk the dog, clean her room, do her homework, or wash the dishes?

And then do you also have a litigious child who mopes sullenly around at every petition but then when you’re not looking mows the lawn, weeds the garden, aces the SAT’s, and gets accepted at Duke? The first one is easier to deal with, but which one is likely to show up and stick around when you break your hip in the autumn of your life?

In Jesus’ little story, both sons dishonor their father, of course. The first son publicly shames and then privately honors his father. What he says is ‘no’ but what he does is ‘yes.’ The second son publicly honors but then privately shames his father. What he says is ‘yes’ but what he does is ‘no.’

Wouldn’t it be great if our deeds always cohered with our words? Wouldn’t it be great if we always said the right word and did the right deed in the right way at the right time for the right reason and in the right frame of mind? Alas, however, in the end we are all too human.

We all know environmentalists who stack four cases of water in plastic bottles lasting a thousand years in the hatchback of their Yukons. We all know politicians who squeal about the evils of big government and then cut taxes, raise spending, and wage a trillion-dollar war they refuse to pay for. We all know a father who says he loves his son more than life itself but then is always texting the boss with one hand while dribbling the basketball with the other in a pickup game with his son.

This is a parable for all good folk who make sure they always say the right thing and believe the right doctrine and perform the obligatory liturgical oblations. Now, those are all good things, but they are not quite the point and not at all what Jesus is after.

What Jesus is after, of course, is not pretty promises but definitive deeds. In his famous book with the searing title Why I Am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell says: “One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes people virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.”[1]

Similar sentiments prompted Christopher Hitchens to write a book with another searing title, God Is Not Great, where he asks us to conduct a thought experiment. Imagine you are walking down the dark streets of a dicey neighborhood in a large and unfamiliar city when you see a large group of young men approaching you from the other direction. Would you feel safer, or less safe, if you knew that they had just emerged from a prayer meeting?

I guess I don’t have to tell you that Mr. Hitchens has his own answer. He says he’s experienced just that situation in such disparate cities as Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, just to stick with the letter ‘B.’[2]

There’s an old Belfast joke about the man who is accosted by a large and menacing person on the streets of Belfast. “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” asks the threatening interrogator. Oh man, this is a difficult situation. What if he gives the wrong answer? On the spot he falls upon an elegant solution. “I’m Jewish,” says the frightened pedestrian. “Ah, say now,” replies the street tough, “wouldn’t I be about the luckiest Arab in Ireland this evening.”[3] Religion is such an ambiguous phenomenon, isn’t it?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which of God’s children are really out there in the vineyard doing the will of their Father. There are, after all, Nominal Christians and Anonymous Christians. Nominal Christians–that is to say, people who are Christian in name only. They say all the right words and observe all the correct rituals, but when it comes to life on the streets their faith seems limp at best or invisible at worst.

One of the most memorable characters from George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede is Hetty Sorrel. Hetty is very beautiful but a little shallow and self-absorbed. Says the novel’s narrator: “Religious doctrines had taken no hold on Hetty’s mind: she was one of those numerous people who have had godfathers and godmothers, learned their catechism, been confirmed, and gone to church every Sunday, and yet, for any practical result of strength in life, or trust in death, have never appropriated a single Christian idea or Christian feeling.”[4] Hetty is a Nominal Christian, a disciple in name only. When the father asks her to work in the vineyard, she says, “Sir, I go,” but then never does.

There are also Anonymous Christians. That is to say, they do not go by the name of Christian, but they act like Christ. Anonymous Christians may never have heard of Jesus Christ, or, if they have, may ignore or reject him. They do not say the right words, and they do not observe the correct rituals, but then by the mysteries of God’s grace, they somehow manage to end up living the Christ-like life. When the father asks them to work in the vineyard, they say “I will not. You have no valid claim on my loyalties.” But then they go out and work in the vineyard anyway.

It was the German Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest Karl Rahner who came up with the concept of Anonymous Christianity around the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He just couldn’t believe that the whole complicated apparatus of the Roman Catholic Church was a strict requirement for salvation. Good people didn’t necessarily need Baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist to receive God’s good favor. It will not surprise you to learn that for a while, the Vatican censored Dr. Rahner’s writings and forbid him from publishing anything further–heresy or orthodoxy. But then John XXIII became Pope and made Dr. Rahner an integral figure in The Second Vatican Council.

Congregational preacher Tony Robinson once served a congregation in a small town in the foothills of the Cascades, and says that years before he arrived there, the town held a contest to identify the town’s best Christian. They all voted, and the award went to Mr. Miller, the owner of the local dry goods store. He was always kind and helpful and knew everyone and everyone knew him. But Mr. Miller must have thought it a little odd that he’d been named the town’s best Christian, because Mr. Miller was Jewish. Well, maybe he was an Anonymous Christian.[5] He was working in the Father’s vineyard anyway.

Anonymous Christians: they don’t say the right words, but they do the right things. I wonder what Paul Newman’s religious convictions were? I’ve never heard him talk about it. His mother was a Catholic who became a Christian Scientist, and his father was Jewish, so who knows what spiritual sensibilities that constellation concocted.

A member of my congregation in Connecticut owned a Scandinavian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, and Kathy and I went as often as we could, but we went for different reasons. I went because the food and service were spectacular; Kathy liked to go because it was Paul Newman’s favorite restaurant, and he was often there. So I wondered what was so compelling about him.

You know, with 65 movies in 50 years, he could have just coasted into retirement while basking in the glory of an adoring public. Film critic Pauline Kael paid him a left-handed compliment when she said that his range as an actor was limited by his infectious charm; he could never play a really vile bad guy. “Nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman,” she said, and you know what she means. All those lovable bad guys: Butch Cassidy, Cool Hand Luke, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, although I thought he was truly sinister in Road to Perdition, didn’t you?

Still, after all that, he started selling salad dressing in 1982. Since then all $400 million in profits has gone to charity, most of it to his Hole in the Wall Gang Camps for children with cancer, where everybody wears cowboy hats, because children with cancer lose their hair to chemotherapy, you know.

All those artistic achievements, all that popularity, all those accolades. He says his greatest legacy is what he did after his film career; his philanthropy is his legacy. “We’re such spendthrifts with our lives,” he says. “I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”[6] What we do is so much more compelling than what we say.

I hope some of us are like that first son. We don’t always manage to come up with the right words, or even the right attitude. “I will not,” we’ve said to God over and over again when God invites us to join God’s good work. We don’t even say ‘Sir.’ Just ‘I will not.’ Our faith is a little patchy maybe.

But maybe we’ll think again, and change our minds, and make our way out to the vineyard, and gather the prolific vintage, and do something wonderful for a world crying out in need. Maybe we don’t always know what to believe. Maybe we don’t always know what to say. But we know what to do.

              [1]Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 19.

            [2]Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books, 2007), pp. 18 & 32.

            [3]Here is the joke as Mr. Hitchens tells it (op. cit.): “There’s an old Belfast joke about the man stopped at a roadblock and asked his religion. When he replies that he is an atheist he is asked, ‘Protestant or Catholic atheist?” I have exchanged the joke for one which I take to be part of the public domain.

            [4]George Eliot, Adam Bede, in Four Novels: Complete & Unabridged (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc.), p. 250.

            [5]Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wmlliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 26-27.

            [6]Aljean Harmetz, “Paul Newman, a Magnetic Titan of Hollywood, Is Dead at 83,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008.