THE FAITH OF OUR FATHER
It was a simple request, the kind that parents make of their children all the time: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard”. Parents have good reasons for asking their children to do as they say. It’s helpful when they let their kids in on their reasoning, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just say “Go. Work. Today. That vineyard”. That is a parent’s prerogative, and a child has to decide what to do in response.
Sometimes, a child responds like the first son in Christ’s parable. The father says, “Son, go work today in the vineyard”, the son listens to his father’s request, looks his Dad in the eye, and says: “I will not”. This sort of push back is fairly common. Kids say “NO” or “I will not” to their parents for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s out of a determination to assert their independence: “I will not be home by ten”. Sometimes it’s to express their fearfulness. Sometimes children say, “I will not” to get attention or express their grief. Other times it is simply to get their way—whether that way is right or wrong. Jesus doesn’t tell us why the first son verbally defied his father’s will. But Jesus does tell us something interesting: “Later, [the first son] changed his mind and went” to work in the vineyard.
Sometimes, everything in us wants to yell NO to the call of our Father. God calls us to go and work, to live by different principles, to develop new patterns, and we often say: “I can’t do it; I won’t do it; I don’t want to do it; you can’t make me do it”. And then later, we come to church, because we’re trying to do it. Maybe it’s partly out of fear of what might happen if we persist in defying God; that’s wise. Maybe it’s partially out of curiosity about where the path He’s pointed might actually lead; that’s good. Perhaps we change our mind and do what He says out of gratitude for all He’s given us; that’s only right. Maybe we go out of partial devotion—because experience teaches us that, even where we can’t see clearly, our Father has good reasons for what He asks; that’s true.
Holy fear, curiosity, gratitude and devotion are all different aspects of humility and humility is the absolute requisite for growth as disciples of Christ. We can only grow big by recognising how small we are before God’s great mind and heart. It’s only as we know that we’re simply in God’s Kingdom—that we’ve got a long way to go to become truly mature—that we start to get big. The reason is that as we become humble, we start putting our trust more in God and less in ourselves. We start obeying His commandments, even where a part of us is still saying, “I don’t want to”. We take a step of trust and that leads to a step of obedience and then one more step of trust and another of obedience, until suddenly we’re actually walking with God.
Jesus doesn’t say what got the first son up and walking toward the vineyard in the end. Maybe it was holy fear or curiosity; maybe gratitude or devotion. The important thing is that he went. Jesus tells us: “Then the father went to the other son, and [the father] said the same thing—‘Go and work today in the vineyard’”. And “he answered, ‘I will, sir’.” No hesitation or whingeing. No, “I’ll get to it in a minute” or “Do I have to do it”? Just an instantaneous ‘yes’ to his father’s instructions. “But he did not go” and work in the vineyard, says Jesus. He makes this beautiful profession of commitment to his father, but then he does not do as he promised. Great talk without the walk. Maybe he just liked the idea of doing the right thing but lacked the will to do it. Perhaps he had very good intentions but was easily distracted. Maybe he wanted to please his father but lacked a full sense of what really was pleasing to him. Perhaps he thought that saying yes was the same as living yes.
But that’s not true. Jesus finished his parable and then turned to the chief priests and the elders and asked this powerful question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted”? It’s obedience not oration that makes the Father proud. Jesus goes on to say that God looks more highly on the genuine repentance and obedience of somebody who’s been a low-life-tax collector, a prostitute, a rebellious son—than he does the pseudo-piety of someone who’s been an upstanding, courteous person but perseveres in being disobedient to his commands.
How does this apply to us? Are we more like son #1 or son #2? Every study suggests that Christians are remarkably articulate when it comes to claiming faith in God, belief in the Bible, respect for Jesus Christ but do we really trust and obey? Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”. With whom, specifically, are we doing that? Christ commands: “Go and make disciples”. Whom have we personally led to Christ or mentored in discipleship in the past year? God the Father says: “Bring the whole tithe into my storehouse”. Did our giving of time, talent, and treasure in the last six months approach 10%? The Father also says: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips”. How is our language these days or the words we speak behind others’ backs?
These are just four areas of discipleship—our behaviour towards difficult people, our nurture of faith in others, our personal stewardship, and control of our tongue. Doing the Father’s will encompasses much more than this of course, but let’s focus on these; let’s pick one part of the vineyard of discipleship to which the Father calls us and start doing less “talking about” and more “walking about” there. Some will say: “I’ll do it when I have more faith, when God gives me more reason to trust”. Yet God says, I’ll give you more reason, when you do it. It is impossible to know the reality and dependability of God by merely paying lip service to the Father.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith, and they’re not two sides of the same coin. The disconcerting fact is that the opposite of faith is sin. Initially faith is not a feeling of certainty and impregnability, it is a fact that is embodied in the action of obedience. The action of obedience is building our lives on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ. The more we obey him, the more positive results we’ll see—in our lives and in the lives of those we touch. These results will then spill back as positive feelings that will encourage us to obey even more. Faith in God and obedience to His commandments are the very legs of discipleship. They are the way by which a follower of Christ moves through life and grows. The more these legs are exercised, the stronger they become, and the more ably and prosperously will walk into the stature that the Father wills for us.
The Rev’d George M Rogers