"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….” (Matt 21:28-30)
Two brothers always cause a problem in the Bible. Whenever a story starts with two brothers you can brace yourself for a bumpy ride. Think of Cain and Abel. Think of Esau and Jacob. How about Moses and Aaron – they run into some trouble with each other. Think of Joseph and all his brothers. Think of the Prodigal son and his angry brother. Two brothers are going to cause trouble.
The Bible is like a dollhouse in which two brothers always dwell and can be called upon to act out whatever lesson God has to teach, for which brothers will provide the best illustration. But the Bible writers knew a secret about dollhouses and brothers: they knew that there is a dollhouse in each of our imaginations, too, where two brothers dwell, who can be called upon at any time. It doesn’t matter if you had a brother of your own, or not; you don’t even need to have had a sister.
The two brothers in the dollhouse of our imaginations are identical twins, who always dress alike and comb their hair alike, and who deliberately try to confuse their friends, their parents, even you and me. One of them was born a minute or two earlier than the other, and so is the older brother – a fact he never tires of reminding his identical younger sibling. Of course the brothers in the dollhouse of our imaginations are rivals for their father’s affection. One constantly seeks his father’s approval, the other, overcompensating, constantly challenges his father’s authority. But both want nothing more than their father’s love. (Sometimes the dollhouse of our imaginations seems like a single-parent household; sometimes Mother is nowhere in sight.)
Of course this biblical, imaginary dollhouse is located on a farm – or to be more precise, by a vineyard. And of course, as soon as the brothers are old enough they are awakened early in the morning by their father and told to get up and work in the vineyard. Now the brothers of our imaginations are not stupid. They know that working in the vineyard is a metaphor with all kinds of possibilities. But this does not make the hour any less early when their father comes knocking at their door; this does not make them any less sleepy; this does not prevent them from yawning deep yawns and rubbing their eyes in the dark of the bedroom they share in the dollhouse of our imaginations.
As they lie there in the dark, they talk to one another.
“What is this all about,” says one brother to the other, “what kind of metaphor is this? Is this about the virtue of hard work”
“No,” says the other brother, “I don’t think so.”
“Is it about the harvest being plentiful but the laborers being few?”
“No,” says the other brother, “I don’t think so.”
“Is it about wearing the appropriate attire to a wedding?”
“No,” says the other brother, “it’s too early for a wedding.”
“Is one of us supposed to get up, ask Dad for our share of inheritance, go off and spend it on women and wine and come crawling back months later to test Dad’s love for us?”
“Different story,” says the other brother.
“Is there a wounded man lying beside the road outside that we are supposed to take care of?”
“We’re not Samaritans,” says the other brother.
“So, what gives?”
“I don’t know,” says the other brother, the older brother, “but I’m not getting up.”
A knock comes again at the door, and it opens, letting light in from the dollhouse hallway. “Let’s go, you two,” says the father, “Up and at ‘em.”
“OK,” says the younger brother, “I’m going.”
“Aww, Dad,” says the older brother, “It’s too early, I’m not getting up, and I’m not working in the vineyard; just try to make me!”
“You realize this is a metaphor, son?” asks the Dad.
The response to which is a couple of groans from beneath a couple of sets of covers, in the sons’ room in the dollhouse of our imaginations.
Lying there in the dark, the younger brother, who generally tried to please his father, and so had assured him that he would go to work in the field, had not meant it when he’d said he’d wake up. He was feeling self-righteous. He had recently read the entire Bible from start to finish. Had his brother done that? No, he had not! He had been going to Youth Group meetings every week, when his older brother often chose to stay home. And he had recently been on a mission trip to some hot and sweaty place where for four whole days he had done good works rather than hang out at the beach, which he’d rather have done. He could get away with skipping a day’s work in the vineyard, his father would never know.
But the older brother (only a few minutes older, mind you) feeling, I suppose, the weight of responsibility that comes with birth-order, was already regretting his defiance of his father’s direction to get up and work in the vineyard. And he was musing on the possibilities of the metaphor. Because he was a twin, he knew, without even asking, that his brother was feeling self-righteous. His brother had this tendency, after all. In fact, the older brother had often covered for his younger twin, to keep peace in the dollhouse. It sometimes irked him that his younger brother got away with so much, but he was his brother, his twin, and he loved him; what could he do?
And besides, the brothers had recently been allowed to start drinking a little wine with dinner – wine that came from the grapes that grew in the vineyard – and both brothers discovered the pleasure of drinking wine (in moderation, of course). Already they were both developing a palate not only for the depth of flavor from the fruit that grew on their vines, but for the secondary characteristics that came with careful blending of varieties and with aging in the barrels, and then in the bottles. The younger brother was satisfied with a straightforward merlot, but the older twin was discovering a taste for the subtleties of pinot noir, although it was a much more difficult grape to grow. It would be good, he began to think, to get out of bed and work in the vineyard, because the fruit of my labor is, quite literally, worth it.
His younger brother, lying there in his dollhouse bed, and being a twin, after all, knew that his slightly older sibling was thinking this way. He knew how seriously his brother took the responsibility of being first-born. And he knew how his brother was developing a fondness for the slim rewards (in his opinion) of the difficult-to-tend pinot noir grapes, (whereas merlot vines were so much easier to tend, and their grapes produced a wine that, if less complex of flavor, could nevertheless pack a decent wallop of alcohol). He also knew that his slightly older twin would eventually get up out of bed and head to work in the vineyard, as their father had asked. He knew that his older twin would rebel for a moment, but eventually he would take responsibility and do what was asked of him. The work would get done. If there was hell to pay later that day, for choosing to sleep in, the younger brother would start to quote the scriptures, drawing on his recent reading of the entire Bible, displaying his impressive ability to cite chapter and verse, particularly choosing those passages that point out that we are saved by grace alone, and not by our works. He felt smug, as the verses ran through his mind and he rolled over in bed and pulled the covers over his head and heard his brother get out of bed and get dressed.
Now, this being a metaphor, as the brothers well know, the time has more or less come to figure out who is who; to separate the sheep from the goats (just to mix the metaphor), the men from the boys, Republicans from Democrats, the good from the bad and the ugly. It would be a good time to name names, to assign blame, to point fingers. The joy about standing in the pulpit is that one gets to feel self-righteous about this, as one pulls the covers back from the metaphor and reveals who is who; matches an identity to the lying and lazy younger brother, and another to the cranky but virtuous older brother.
Except, of course, that this metaphor is actually about being self-righteous. It is about the gap between what you say and what you do; the faith you declare and the life you live. This story is a story of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and of the tendency of the overtly religious to these two faults. It is story of people who seem to say in church that they will get up and work in the vineyard, but instead just end up quoting the Bible as if that justified them.
And it is a story about people who never go to church but who somehow seem to live out the Gospel of love and compassion without ever being able to tell you where in the Bible it says this is important, just as they cannot name names of those who the Bible says are going to burn in hell, since they believe that if the Bible ever seems to say such a thing, then clearly we who read it are misunderstanding some aspect of revelation of the God of love.
And if names must be named; if sheep must be separated from goats; if brothers must be shown to be who they really are in the dollhouses of our imaginations, then the truth is that both brothers live inside a dollhouse in each of us. Both of these twins inhabit each of our lives. There is a tax collector and a prostitute in each of us, and there is a chief priest and an elder in each of us. There is one brother and the other in each of us.
Every morning God wakes us up with the sun, or with a knock, or an alarm, or the dog licking your face. And every morning brings a call – not just to go to work (which we all have to do) but to work in the metaphorical vineyard of God’s kingdom. Many people these days are so deaf to the metaphor that they don’t even know it is in play. But if you are listening to me talk, you know, or at least you suspect that God is calling you to build up his kingdom, to work in his vineyard somehow, and if this has never occurred to you before, then I am here to tell you, he is calling you!
God is calling every one of us to work in his vineyard, which is not always easy. It requires our time, our energy, our money, our commitment, our bodies, our souls, our relatives, and our friends. And every morning the story of the two brothers could play out in the dollhouse of your hearts. Every morning you might hear one or the other of the brothers answer:
“OK, Dad, I’m going,” on the one hand.
Or, “Aww Dad, it’s too early. I’m not getting up, and I’m not working in the vineyard; just try to make me!”
Sitting here in church, of course we know what the right answer is; we know which brother we are supposed to be. But, that, of course, is the point of the story. We know the right answer; we can give the right answer! But we are complicated people, with many ways of evading the call to work in God’s kingdom, and we are prone to not always do what we say we will do. Furthermore, we are prone to feel self-righteous, especially if we have been going to church regularly, reading the Scriptures, and if we have given a little bit of our time, a little bit of our energy, a little bit of our money already to the work of God’s kingdom.
Enough is enough, already, we tend to think. And we also tend to think that the work will get done; that someone else’s inner older brother will get out of bed and work in the vineyard, while our younger twin rolls over and goes back to sleep.
And then a knock comes again at the door, and it opens, letting light in from the dollhouse hallway of our hearts. “Let’s go, you two,” says the father, “Up and at ‘em.”
And it only remains to be seen which brother will rule our hearts today.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
25 September 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia