“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” – Matthew 21:28-32
The dutiful son and the rebellious son give us a great example of Advent’s advance. One says yes to the father; the other does not. Jesus uses the occasion of mixed obedience to argue that obedience is not the frame for God. Instead, God initiates a love of humanity that excuses sin and prefers the prostitute and the lawbreaker. We respond to that love in a different key than that of work in the vineyard. The parable is dense and confusing and also about grace.
My son keeps asking me obnoxious questions. His favorite question these days goes right to my heart. “Mom, what would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do?” I won’t tell you my answer but I will ask you his question. It is the same one the parable asks.
We are saved by grace and not obedience. We may have broken too many rules. We may have “dissed” our parents. Our resumé may be dated. We may not have scored high on the credit rating or the SAT’s. Even so and nevertheless, we get to work in the vineyard. We don’t have to work in the vineyard to prove anything. We get to work in the vineyard. We are allowed to enter the vineyard and put a grape into a basket or turn one into wine.
When Advent preparations pound us into a place far from grace, imagine the preposterous notion that we are already prepared.
Creator of the vineyards, thank you that we can do what we want to do and not what we have to do. Amen.
Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Her latest book is Approaching the End of Life: A Practical and Spiritual Guide.