Jesus said, “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?”
Jesus’ question is as relevant today as it was when he first asked it more than two millenniums ago.
Basically. he is asking who does the will of God — the one who proclaims belief, but does not show evidence of that faith in life? Or the one who does not claim belief, but lives a life of goodness.
Those questions hit home for Christians today.
Last year a nationwide poll asked both Christians and non-Christians (those of other faiths and those of no faith) to describe how they viewed Christians.
The top three words that Christians used were giving, compassionate, and loving.
The top three words that non-Christians used were hypocritical, judgmental, and self righteous.
Other words non-Christians used to describe the followers of Jesus were intolerant, hateful, and homophobic.
That’s a pretty damning description of those of us who proclaim that we believe in a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness.
It makes the words of Mahatma Gandhi ring true:
“I like your Christ,” he said, “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
These are not new issues. After Jesus’ death, his brother, James, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The letter that James wrote to the new church addressed these very issues.
James, like Jesus, was less concerned about what Christians should believe than how they behaved.
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” he says.
“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this – to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
The most famous line from James’ epistle is this –“What good is it my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
James is addressing the same question that Jesus posed: How does our faith influence our lives – how we shop, how we vote, how we treat one another.
Biblical scholar Bo Reicke writes that James’ primary concern was the low level of commitment within the church of his day. “People were coming to worship, listening to preaching, professing faith in Jesus, yet they didn’t allow their faith to impact their daily lives.
“They were satisfied with a formal confession of the faith, but unprepared to assume responsibility for its wider implications and certainly did not expect to carry those out in their lives.
“They were not connecting what they believed with how they behaved.”
James and Jesus challenge us to do more than give lip service to Jesus. They remind us that a true Christian life involves more than merely giving assent to a check list of beliefs.
True faith doesn’t let us sit passively; it makes us active participants in God’s work. It is as much about doing the Gospel as believing it.
Several years ago I read an article by an Episcopal priest and seminary dean, William Rankin, that addresses these issues. Rankin writes about his son, Rob, who professes no faith in God, but who lives out the Gospel everyday.
As a young boy, Rob befriended classmates who lived on the painful edge of the social circles, the outcasts of middle and high school. He wrote to the governor protesting the death penalty and pleading for the life of a mentally disabled woman who faced execution.
He is concerned about the environment and animal rights. He works to help the homeless.
“The personal sensitivities that animates concerns like these is truly of God, whether the people who hold these concerns bring God into it or not,” Rankin writes.
“The best way to witness to God in this world is not to talk about doctrine or right belief,” he adds.
“It is instead to bear witness with one’s life to the impulse toward mutuality in community, to actually do the things that nurture the best of which we are capable in the human spirit, the things of generosity, and the things that liberate people from oppression, whether gender oppression, racial oppression, the oppression of people because of their sexual orientation, or what have you.
“Whether a person proclaims the self as an atheist, or an agnostic, a Christian, a Buddhist, or whatever, who they are in the heart, and how they intend themselves with respect to the future of the world, is what makes the difference.”
“When my son told me that he was an atheist, I said, jokingly, ‘I don’t care about your philosophy, but you must be polite.’ The truth is that he has always been polite, for he has a heart of gold.
“The religious language is virtually extraneous. My son the atheist is a servant of the good, or as I would put it out of his hearing, a servant of God.”
This does not mean that faith in unimportant. Of course, it is. Faith is what nourishes and sustains us, what compels us to look beyond ourselves to the world God created.
But faith removed from life is really not faith at all.
And although I believe that no one can earn their way into heaven, that salvation is a God-given gift of grace, I believe that those who quietly serve the good as they go about life each day are those with whom God is well pleased.