Faith In Real Life Blog
“Hard Choices – Predictable Consequences”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyerian Church
September 27, 2023
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24 Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26 But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27 So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29 He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
There are two different questions the chief priest was asking Jesus.
1.“By what authority are you doing these things?
Jesus’ actions routinely challenged the established religious order. He spoke of mindfulness, regard and love and that is how he treated people—regardless of the secular and religious rankings and categories of his day. He lived a life of non-violence even when the world treated him with violence. He loved his enemies even as they killed him. In so doing he demonstrated an obedience to the God of Love that serves as an exemplar and as forgiveness for all of us. Jesus gained credibility and authority by the congruence between the words he spoke and the actions of his life.
2. Who gave you this authority?
Jesus is granted this authority by the God named “I Am who I Am”. This is the God who sent Moses to confront Pharaoh. When we discover our own “I-am-ness” we connect with the divine within us. This means we live a life oriented towards love and in which our actions match our deeds. This is precisely how Jesus lived. Hence the words at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus counters the chief priest’s question with a question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
John’s baptism was not the baptism we are familiar with. It was a baptism of repentance—a baptism that reflected a turning toward God. (It was not the announcement of our inclusion in God’s infinite Grace). As such, anyone qualified, including the infamous tax collectors and prostitutes – the most egregious sinners in first century society.
This concept was disturbing to the religious order. There were rules and rituals to be followed. You couldn’t just decide to turn toward God without the sanction of the formal church. Jesus’ demand that substance should follow form puts the chief priest in a bind. The people loved John for the hope he offered but the religious hierarchy was threatened. If John was from God, where did the church fit in? And, as the scripture points out, if they yielded that John was from heaven ’preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness’, why didn’t they believe him? Denying that John had authority also implied that Jesus did not have authority but accepting John’s authority would concede Jesus’ authority. So, they said nothing—while they secretly denied both John and Jesus. As we are to see in the parable, the chief priest was unwilling to be accountable for his own thoughts and opinions.
Parable of the Two Sons
Jesus makes his point in parable. It is Matthew’s version of Luke’s Prodigal Son. The landowner says: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” Don’t get literal. The vineyard is a metaphor for doing God’s work. The first son says NO—but then changes his mind. We do not know why—only that he did. The second son says YES—but never follows through. Again, we do not know why.
Now it is easy to get dichotomous and judgmental here. Jesus asks: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” This is a single point in time and at any single point in time, we all have been in both son’s shoes. We have said no to God. We may have a hundred ‘good’ reasons. We may have had a life-threatening emergency. We may be burned out. We may be intimidated by the work. We may be taking a ‘mental health day’. We may simply be self-centered and lazy. We must not be quick to judge. All of us have said no to the work of love. With each no we separate ourselves from the life Jesus desires for us. But our ‘no’, nor our series of refusals, does not exclude us from God’s care.
It is important to note that in the parable, just as the identified sinners are still included, but those who said yes but did not follow through are not banned from the kingdom of God, they will just be last in line. “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” In the parable and in Jesus’ life, all sinners are under God’s care.
We all have said yes to God and then failed to follow through—which is simply another way to say no to God. We may have said yes out of guilt or the need to please. (It is amazing how many people say yes when pledging money to a charity but then the check never gets written). We may have a case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Something or someone else comes along that is more appealing. We may actually believe we are doing the work of loving while maintaining a blind eye to our gossip, disregard and prejudices.
In any case, just because we hear the word yes, our actions often belie our words. Our yes may actually be a covert no. We have all disappointed others in such a manner and we have all been disappointed. In real life this disappointment is very difficult to cope with. We are all accountable for both our yes and no. We need to remember all of us have said both—especially when we feel let down or worse, betrayed. That means we are accountable for speaking up—without self-righteousness—when people we count on disappoint us. That is part of the hard work of loving.
In the parable, Jesus confronts the righteous with their false yes. But by using parables, Jesus always leaves room for each of us to look more clearly at how our actions match—or fail to match, our words. By definition the chief priest has said yes to God but by his behavior he was missing the call to love.
It is ironic that the people who say no to the work of love actually are more honest and eventually accountable. These are the people who turned toward the Lord after first saying no. They are the ones who have the humility to say ‘we are going in the wrong direction.’ That takes courage and accountability. And those traits coupled with gratitude form the basis of the spiritual life. It is not too late when we insist we are right and are unwilling to be challenged but it is harder to listen to God’s will in such a state. Jesus warns us against our certainties and self-righteousness—especially when we have been wronged. They will get in our way every time.
Choices and Consequences
Jesus calls each of us to work in the vineyard. It is a lot of work. Sometimes it is thankless. His call does not protect us from the hot sun nor hardship and disappointment. It is often hard to tell if we make a difference; and by secular standards, we will be judged as chronically inadequate to the needs around us. It is inconvenient to choose to love. It requires sacrifice and service. Why would any of us say yes to such a life?
But the work is a privilege. We say yes because we believe Jesus’ way leads to life. It leads to a life of purpose. It leads to a life well lived. It leads to humility and gratitude. In contrast, a life in which we are the center of life leads to dead ends of disconnection, adversarial competition, self-centeredness and self-righteousness. It is fear-based and requires constant vigilance and effort to ‘earn’ your place in such a world. That turns out to be vastly more expensive than the work of loving.
Jesus’ authority ultimately resides in our discovering, for ourselves and in real life, that we are loved, that love matters and that love will prevail. It requires work. But it leads to life. Let it be so.
Now that I’ve gotten this far, my takeaways are:
Actions speak louder than words.
We are accountable for our yes and for our no.
We must find ways to be respectful and mindful—even when we must confront the people who disappoint—or even betray—but we have the responsibility to speak up.
‘Keeping the peace’ by remaining silent is a false peace.
We will fail but God’s grace extended to the most resentfully silent and the most self righteous (the chief priest in this parable). That means there is room for us.
Jesus’ authority was based in the congruence of his words and deeds. The same is true for us.
Finally, God calls us to do the work of love because, in real life, the work of love leads to life.
I did not write last week because I was nursing a bout with Covid. In addition, we are in the middle of downsizing which means our house is in complete chaos. I had considered declaring a sabbatical from writing but have decided to shift to an easier, if more disjointed style of writing. I need the discipline. As I hope to make clear in the blog, I believe the work helps my spiritual life and my day to day living. Bear with me. God’s Peace, Vernon
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.