One of the essential features of being human is that we all—without exception—want to have it both ways. We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to argue on the internet and be right. We want to accuse others of being literally Hitler without being Hitler ourselves. In short, we want to talk out of both sides of our mouths and not be caught in any kind of internal, or even external, inconsistency.
“What do you think?” asks Jesus, gazing around at a crowd of religious elders who will very shortly organize themselves and the whole city to kill him. He’s just cleared out the temple, and cursed the fig tree, and come into Jerusalem in triumph, and now, in these brief days before his death, he wants, again, to hold the truth before the eyes of all humanity. “What do you think?” he asks,
“A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
The answer is clear, of course. It doesn’t matter what you say, if you don’t do the thing that you say you’re going to do, you don’t get credit for doing it. I try to point this out to my children all the time. I say, “Someone go clean the kitchen!” and then they immediately all disappear into the bowels of the house “to study” or they begin a violent argument about what “someone” even means. Which “someone” did it last time? It’s not fair if the “someone” turns out to be any of them.
All the people hanging around in the temple that afternoon, though, wouldn’t have been caught in that little trap of mine. They would have said, without guile, that they both said they were going to the vineyard, and then that they did in fact go into the vineyard. They would have believed this with all the moral complacency of Greta Thunberg or even Franklin Graham. I believe in the thing I’m doing, and I am doing the thing that I believe. There is no problem here. Except that there are all kinds of problems, because of who the Father is and what the vineyard represents. Jesus waits, and finally, the leaders of Israel say the answer:
They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
The leaders of Israel stagger back in their wroth. Those are the people who won’t be getting in, no matter what they say. Their obtrusions into the life of Jesus—showing up to dinner, washing his feet, begging him for mercy—didn’t indicate anything at all to any of them. A wicked person is wicked, that’s just how it is.
Indeed, wicked people being wicked is one of the ways everyone gets to have it both ways. Because you are never the wicked person, and so everything that you do and say—whether it be good or bad, it doesn’t really matter—gets filtered through the grid of your own essential goodness. It is how, on Twitter, you can go in a couple of months from “Pro-lifers only care about the baby, they don’t help anyone really,” to “Adoption, now that pro-lifers are doing it, is really colonization and very very evil.” That’s the one that stood out to me yesterday, as I scrolled around trying to avoid my own life. But there are lots of others. Everyone falls into the trap of personal goodness in one way or another. It’s one of the ways you can know you are human, and know you haven’t died—you can catch yourself trying to explain how it is that you are good, and everything you do is basically holy.
The word you’re looking for is “virtue-signal.” You announce loudly that you are obeying the father and going to the vineyard, stopping by the alms boxes in the temple for a few minutes to have your trumpet blown and the amount of your gift announced, and that is entirely the substance of what you needed to do, in your own mind. You have made it known that you are not wicked, and now it doesn’t matter what you really do. You can even set about killing the Son of God, for blasphemy of all things, because you weren’t willing–indeed, you didn’t have to investigate his claims. They were obviously wrong, and by doing away with him, you have done a good and righteous thing. You have bought yourself a piece of cake and now you get to eat it.
Too bad that Jesus is able to look past the twitter post, or the trumpet blast. Your moral indignation isn’t enough of a fog that he can’t peer through the gloom of your own heart to see that you weren’t planning actually to go, you weren’t interested in him or in his vineyard. Indeed, he doubles down to tell a horrible tale about what the next few days will be like for him, as all of his people turn their fury on his person and try to destroy him, and his Father, and the vineyard. But the hour, though close, has not yet come, and so Jesus goes back out of the city for the night.
By the end of the week not only will the vineyard not have been destroyed, but its gate will have been thrown open wide for every single person who had ever said he wouldn’t go, but then turned around and did go in, whether anyone saw it or not.
No matter what anyone says, or what terrible inconsistency you’re living with inside your soul—by your actions and habits of mind and beliefs about yourself and God—there is a way to have it all. That way is to heed Jesus at whatever moment he calls you, to go running headlong into the vineyard. Though all the world cry and rail after you for your wickedness, for your wrong thoughts, for your bigotry and hatred, the clamor will be lost as you find that being with the owner of the vineyard, and trying however pathetically to do what he says, makes everything else taste like ash in comparison.
Go to church! No one will care how good or bad you are! They’ll just be glad to see you.