"A man had two sons . . .” was a common way to begin a parable, especially one comparing good and bad sons. Matthew uses it to contrast one son, who promises to work in the vineyard but never shows up, with another, who at first adamantly refuses to go to the vineyard but later repents and goes (21:28-32). Which one did the will of his father, asks Jesus? Not the one who talked a good game, but the one who actually followed through with obedient actions.
God will forgive my sins,” quipped Heinrich Heine on his deathbed. “It’s his job.” How different are the viewpoints of Isaiah, Paul and Luke! They note an ongoing theological tension between the assurance of God’s kindness and the call to immediate repentance. Yes, God is merciful, not punishing as we deserve, not automatically correlating our misdeeds with disasters. But there is no room for complacency: if we think we’re standing, we should watch that we do not fall.
When my friends and I sang at church camp, we sang sincerely, often teary-eyed, seated on the ground with the cross illumined by candlelight in front of us. In those emotional moments, I imagined myself to be standing firm in the Lord as Paul had urged the Philippians to do. In those moments, I was determined to set my face toward him. But my single-mindedness never lasted.
The Hebrews’ stories brought their lives into balance. Moses believed that remembering where they’d been, how they’d come into the land God promised, and what God had done for them would keep them faithful. So he said that in offering the first fruits of harvest, “You shall make this response before the LORD your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’” Their story was a confession of faith, a community story that cast their thanksgiving into a framework that provided boundary and purpose to their lives together. It was a creed. Tell it again and again, Moses urged.
All I know about Jesus is what I heard him say. That’s all I know about almost anybody. It’s not true that “deeds speak louder than words.” Only words speak. The old “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” is only partly true. Most ministerial speech these days tends to be in the affirmative mood. We pastors are, in the acerbic words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.”