Jesus was often confronted by religious leaders about his origins, his doctrine, or his allegiance to rabbinic traditions. On one such occasion, he was asked about the source of the power he manifested in healing diseases and delivering from demons. He tilted the conversation back to their faithlessness and hypocrisy with a hypothetical scenario involving a father and two sons.
The father told both sons to go work in his vineyard. The first one said he would not go, but later “changed his mind and went.” The second told the father that he would go, but then did not. Jesus asked his audience which son had obeyed the father, and they rightly answered, “The first” (Matt 21:28-31).
A simple interpretation and application of the story is that it is not what we say, but what we actually do that matters in his kingdom. But having an analytical and logical mind, I can’t resist respectfully deconstructing this a bit to give it broader applicability. As many like to say–to “unpack it.”
When it comes to the relationship between saying and doing, there are 4 permutations:
- We can say no, and then do nothing
- We can say no but do it anyway (like the first son)
- We can say yes but do nothing (like the second son)
- We can say yes and do what we say we will do
If we take the first path, we keep ourselves free from responsibility by promising nothing. This is exactly the right decision if we discern that our participation in a matter would be unwise or inappropriate. People who have poor boundaries really struggle with this one. It is not wrong to say no. But there are times when yes is the right answer, and “no” can’t become an automatic, self-protective response. If it does, we will have little impact for the kingdom of God.
The first son, who took the path Jesus commended, began from a point of rebellion. The father gave an order, the son refused to comply. But later, he changed his mind. He repented of his rebellion and showed up to work in the vineyard. Isn’t this a beautiful picture of our coming to faith? We were all in rebellion, enslaved to our sinful nature, denying God. Then we turned.
Jesus praised the people of Ninevah in Jonah’s day, one of the most wicked cultures that has ever existed on the planet. They were an apt example because they at first refused to honor God, and later changed their minds in response to Jonah’s message. Likewise, Jesus’ lauded those in his midst—the tax collectors and prostitutes–who humbled themselves and repented. Faith turned their no into a yes. This is the spectacle of God’s grace.
Regarding the response of the second son, Jesus cautions about vows or oaths made to God. When we make them, we are bound by heaven to keep them. Jesus taught his disciples (that’s us) that we are simply to let our yes be yes and our no be no, because “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). When God issues a command, the most noble, godly response is to say yes—to agree with his righteous path—and then act accordingly. When we make a vow, we should make sure it is a “yes” that can be followed by faithful actions. There is often a heavy price to pay for breaking our word.
An obvious example is the marriage vow, which typically promises love, care, and fidelity “until death parts us.” These words should not be spoken hastily or carelessly. A covenant bond is being formed between two individuals in the sight of God, with a congregation of heaven and earth listening and bearing witness. Many preachers mark this spiritual reality by quoting Jesus at the end of the marriage ceremony, “What God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:6).
When Christians break a marriage vow, they are acting like the second son. They are saying and not doing; the only difference is perhaps one of duration and consequences. There are many other examples of saying and not doing in the world these days. Disobedient children, neglectful parents, dishonest politicians, corrupt business people, compromised spiritual leaders, fair-weather friends. We are cautioned not to promise things we lack the ability or intention to perform.
Finally, we have the option to speak a vow and then to fulfill it. This is not presented explicitly but is implied in Jesus’ parable. When the Father issues a command, we say yes, and we follow through on our yes with obedient action, whether convenient or not. This requires integrity and discipline. James wrote,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word,but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do (James 1:22-25).
As disciples who attend to the commandments of God, and recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit, we are accountable to obey. Lord, bless us with ears to hear, hearts that respond, mouths that only speak truth, and feet that move out to accomplish the good works you assign to us. Let our yes be yes, and our no be no.
*When I speak of divorce and breaking of vows, I am not intending to bring a judgment or condemnation on those who have been injured by divorce. I’m using it as a primary example of covenant making and covenant breaking, and the need to take seriously any vows we take, even if our partners in covenant do not.