Words Are Not Enough
By Debie Thomas
When I was four years old, an elderly couple who attended my father’s church invited our family over for dinner. There were no children to play with at the parishioners’ house, so as the evening wore on, and the grown-ups kept talking, I got bored. The hosts kindly set me up with crayons and paper at a desk in their study, but after a few minutes of listless doodling, I got tired of that as well, and started exploring the contents of their desk drawers instead.
In a large bottom drawer, I found a huge collection of keychains. Chains with simple silver keyrings; chains with pendants representing various states, cities, countries, and universities; chains with hearts, stars, rainbows, and animal charms. I fell in love with a gold chain that featured three tiny ice cream cones in bright, glittery colors — one chocolate, one strawberry, and one vanilla. Without giving it a second thought, I slipped the keychain into my pocket.
My parents didn’t discover what I’d done until we got home and it was time to change for bed. When the keychain fell out of my dress pocket, the predictable parent-child conversation ensued: “Where did you get that?” “I found it.” “What do you mean, you found it? Where?” Etc.
When it became clear to my parents that they had a little thief on their hands, my father told me that I had to call the couple immediately, say sorry, and return the chain the next morning. I said no. Specifically, I said no because I didn’t feel sorry. The parishioners had gazillions of keychains, they plainly didn’t care about them very much if they kept the chains jumbled together in a desk drawer, the ice cream keychain was meant to appeal to kids, and I was a kid. So why did I need to apologize?
It didn’t take long for the situation to escalate into a full-on battle of the wills. My dad was determined to get an apology out of me, and I was just as determined not to say a word I didn’t mean. I’m guessing my father peered into my future that night and envisioned years of teen delinquency. For sure he was embarrassed that I — the supposedly perfect little preacher’s daughter — had stolen from his own church members.
I can’t remember now how long we battled it out. It felt like hours. In the end, my father — louder, stronger, and not as exhaustingly past his bedtime as I was — won. He called the couple and handed me the phone. I said a very petulant and unconvincing “sorry,” and the next morning, I returned the keychain.
I know that my father had the best intentions that night. But the lesson I ended up learning was not, I think, the lesson he hoped to teach. The lesson I learned is that confession and obedience are primarily about saying the right things — the formulaic things, the expected things, the pious, dutiful, “Christianese” things. For years afterwards, I failed to understand repentance as a multidimensional action — an engaged and ongoing action of the heart, mind, soul, and body. Just spout the words the grown-ups want to hear, I told myself as a kid, and they’ll leave you alone. Just talk like a good Christian, and you’ll be one.
I begin with this childhood story because I fear that many of us who are “churched” settle for this shallow, “words only” version of the Christian life, even as adults. Over time, we learn to “speak the speak.” We figure out what the magic words are — the words that will showcase our supposed spiritual maturity to the world. We “confess with our mouths” during the Sunday liturgy, or at the dinner table with our families, or in our midweek Bible studies, and somehow we forget that the life God calls us to live is a wholly integrated life — a life in which our words and our actions infuse, enrich, mirror, and reinforce each other.
In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons. When the father asked the first son to go and work in the vineyard, that son said, “No, I will not,” but later changed his mind, and did the work his father needed done. When the father asked the second son to go help in the vineyard, that son said, “I will, sir,” but then he didn’t go. “Which son,” Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders after telling this story, “did the will of his father?”
Of course we know the correct answer. We know it as well now as the chief priests and elders knew it back in Jesus’s day. The first son did the will of his father. It was not what either boy said that mattered in the end; it was what they did.
Yes, we know the correct answer to Jesus’s question — and yet we struggle to bridge the gap between what we say we believe, and what we actually go out and do in light of those beliefs. Sometimes, we don’t even struggle; we fall back into complacency, or laziness, or a self-protective defeatism. We tell ourselves that our words (or our intentions, or our aspirations, or our vague future plans) are enough to keep God off our backs. We convince ourselves that action is just plain too hard and disruptive — and therefore unnecessary.
Which is precisely why, I think, Jesus levels this particular story at the chief priests and elders when they demand to know who the heck he thinks he is: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
First, some context: as this Gospel reading opens, it’s the Monday of what we now call Holy Week. Jesus has just spent the weekend entering Jerusalem on a stolen donkey, receiving the adoration of the crowds, cursing a fig tree, and slinging a whip around the temple to cleanse it of corruption. In other words, he has just spent the weekend making holy trouble, and the religious establishment is furious with him. They can’t believe this itinerant preacher’s nerve. His gall. Again: who the heck does he think he is?
As is typical of Jesus, he refuses to answer his accusers’ question about authority. Instead, he asks them a question that is just as barbed, just as tricky: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The chief priests and elders know that if they admit that John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God, Jesus will ask them why they rejected John’s teaching, and refused his invitation to repent and receive baptism. At the same time, they know that if they say John was nothing more than a self-deluded charlatan, the crowds — who love John — will turn on them. So they refuse to answer the question.
This is when Jesus pulls out the story of the father and his two sons — and concludes the story with the zinger that further incenses his accusers, and just about guarantees his crucifixion five days later: You, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, are like the second son in the story. You talk the talk, you make lofty promises, you speak fluent religion-ese. But when John came and offered you the good news of the kingdom, you refused to act. You refused to do the actual work of God.
Meanwhile, the people whom you deem the worst sinners? The tax collectors and the prostitutes? They are like the first son in the story. When John offered them the gift of repentance and salvation, they responded — even though their lives until then had not been particularly pious. Recognizing their own helplessness, hopelessness, and depravity, they flocked to the wilderness in obedience to God, and repented in the waters of baptism.
And yet even then — even when you saw countless others embracing the Gospel, you refused to change your minds. And so the prostitutes and tax collectors, the people at the bottom of your religious hierarchy of goodness and badness, will enter God’s kingdom ahead of you.
Ouch. Are we squirming yet? It won’t do us any good to shake our heads at the obtuseness of the chief priests and elders, and then walk away as if this Gospel isn’t for us. Because it is for us. The judgment implicit in Jesus’s story of the father and the two sons is directed at every one of us who claims the name “Christian.” We are meant to be uncomfortable, to be confronted, to ask ourselves: which son am I? Am I the son who makes promises I fail to keep? Am I the son who talks the talk, and sincerely believes that my sacred-sounding words are enough? Am I the son who doesn’t see repentance as a lifelong business, a business that didn’t end at the altar call, or the confirmation service, or the baptism, or the newcomer’s class at church, that first drew me to Jesus?
Or am I the son who says the wrong thing, but finally repents and obeys, anyway? The son who might not sound all spiritual and sanctified, but still does the work of love and mercy when the rubber hits the road? The son who recognizes that God is still at work, here and now, doing new things, transformative things, salvific things? The son who changes his mind when new truth, new life, new possibility, and new hope, reveal themselves?
It’s worth noting here that the people who flocked to John and to Jesus were the people who had no other legs to stand on. They were desperate. They recognized the enormity of their own needs, hungers, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. They knew that they could never attain holiness on their own. For them, the waters of baptism, the prayers of repentance, the grateful submission to Jesus’s authority — these were lifeblood. Meat for the bones and water for parched tongues. Maybe, if religion remains casual and optional for us, we have not yet recognized the extent of our lostness.
To be clear, what Jesus called out when he “cleansed” the temple and infuriated the elders was not Judaism or its various forms of worship. It was a system of exploitation via exorbitant tithes and taxes that blocked access to the divine — that literally kept the bodies of the poor outside the gates of the temple, forcing them into more and endless debt before they could approach and worship God.
What Jesus opposed through the story of the father and the two sons was all forms of religion that stop at empty words. All forms of piety that don’t move us into the world of concrete action on behalf of justice, mercy, equality, love, and compassion. All forms of Christianity that flicker to life on Sunday morning, but then fade out between Monday and Saturday.
We are invited to be like the first son. We are invited to be like the tax collectors and the prostitutes. But we cannot do this if we keep our faith lives tethered to abstractions. If we live a Christianity of the mind without also living one of the flesh. After all, it is with our bodies that we experience pain, anger, terror, and joy. It’s my chest that hurts when I mourn. It’s my face that burns when I’m angry. It’s my whole body that warms with pleasure when I’m happy. Our faith is meant to be embodied. To be incarnate. To be organic. To be active. In the realm of God, words — even the most beautiful words — are not enough.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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