Being Well Or Doing Well?
Which of the two did what the father wanted?
Rumor had it that a great prophet had risen up among a people who lived in a place far-removed from the civilized world. An American TV News team was sent out to do a story on this person. When they reached their destination, they were greeted by a disciple of the great prophet. “Tell the rest of the world,” said one of the TV reporters, “what miracle has your Master worked lately?” To which the disciple replied, “Well, there are miracles and then there are miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our land it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the Will of God.”1
In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus tells a simple little story of how two brothers responded to their father’s request to work for him in his vineyard. One son responded positively, saying, “I am on the way sir.” But he never went out to the vineyard. The other responded negatively, saying, “No, I will not.” But later he changed his attitude and he did go out to do his father’s work. “Which of the two did what the father wanted?” Jesus asks the Chief Priests and the Elders of the Temple. They answer correctly, of course, “The second.”
Now Jesus doesn’t put on this little quiz to see how smart His listeners are. He is making a crucial point with them about their relationship with God. It is not what you say, not what you promise, not your good intentions that matter most. Far better to move from bad intentions to positive action than to remain locked into your good intentions and no actions.
This is a lesson in repentance. You stumble, you fall, you refuse, you hedge, you shift, you fail, but God your Father is always there, ready to redeem your life situation, if only you will repent. Repentance takes you beyond good intentions. Repentance is the means of your actually becoming the person God wants you to be. No need to sit there turning yourself over the coals and blaming yourself, over-and-over-again, for your failures and your misdeeds. The forgiveness, the healing, the New Life is here, and it will change everything for you if only you will respond positively to the Father’s invitation to labor in His vineyard. Only in the doing of God’s Will can you open yourself up to the Redemptive Power of a loving God. God is asking you to transform your very life into an ongoing expression of His Love. You are called to be that someone who performs the miracle of doing God’s Will.
In a book called “Love Is Something You Do,” there is the story of a man people called “Old Governor Campbell,” described by the author as “the undisputed chief of the village bums, in our southwestern town.” Very little was known about his background or from whence he had come, but “Old Governor Campbell” was as much a part of the scenery as the Court House where he normally hung out. He knew many of the merchants and the lawyers who passed by and he would greet them with some coarse remark, (vulgarity being his stock in trade) and he sponged quarters from them. One quarter meant that he ate that day; two quarters meant he would get drunk for supper. These were the days when the Southwest’s version of the religious revival tent-meeting was very much in vogue. And every year or so, “Old Governor Campbell” would shock his benefactors by being converted. The news would spread from the Court House to the barber shop to the local bars: “Old Governor Campbell’s got religion again.” It would be told as a joke, with many a laugh. But it was a hollow joke. It was nervous laughter. For, sure enough, there he’d be, clean-shaven, hair trimmed, clothes pressed, standing erect on the street for a few days — but never more than a few days. Soon, you would see the stubble growing back on his chin and the press going out of his clothes and the slouch coming back into his shoulders and the gleam going out of his eyes — and you could see him wilt under the taunts of the passersby: “How many days this time Governor? How does it feel to be your old self again, Governor?” He’d be back in character and those who seemed to enjoy the spectacle would slip him a quarter and a knowing wink. And at the barber shop or the local bars, they’d be saying things like, “That’s the trouble with religion. Those preachers keep trying to convert people like that Old Governor Campbell! And there he is again, stiff as a Billy goat.”
After telling this story, the author of “Love Is Something You Do” wrote: How would I have dared to say to them, had I known enough — which I didn’t — “You’re terribly mistaken. The trouble isn’t with religion. When you laugh at the old derelict you become a party to his tragedy. For you don’t believe, and you don’t want him to believe, that a person can change. His disaster isn’t that he gets converted too often; his tragedy is the same as ours. He simply doesn’t get converted often enough!”
We’ve missed something basic, something right at the root of our Faith, if we’ve never realized how much of our Christianity consists of a whole lifetime of new beginnings and fresh starts.2
We are being called daily to perform the miracle of doing the Will of God — to enter into a lifestyle of revealing the miracle of God’s Love in our relationships with one another.
A seventeenth-century Italian author wrote a book in which he commented on the social conditions of the time in Lombardy. “So long as he is in this world, man is like a sick person lying on a bed more or less uncomfortable,” the author wrote. He continued…
He sees around him other beds nicely made, to outward appearances smooth and level, and fancies that they must be more comfortable resting places. He succeeds in making an exchange; but scarcely is he placed in another, before he begins to feel in one place a sharp point pricking him, in another a hard lump; in short, we come to almost the same story again, over-and-over again. And for this reason, we ought to aim rather at doing well than being well.
That insightful line, “…we ought to aim rather at doing well than being well,” remains good advice, even to this day. Doing well means the ongoing daily discovery of ever new ways to give of ourselves in our relationships with one another. We have not been designed by God to cope with life on earth in isolation. We have a built-in need for support and to support, both. Our best earthly glimpse of the meaning of life comes to us in and through our expressions of mutual support, mutual love, as we move together toward our ultimate fulfillment as God’s creative masterpieces — when the fullness of the hidden treasure, the fullness of the miracle of Love shall be uncovered, and treasured, and lived eternally!
The Good News about God is that He loves you and wants you to have life. But He has given you freedom — freedom to say “Yes” or “No.” You can choose life or you can choose death. You can obey or you can disobey. You can follow Jesus or you can go your own way. The consequence, or the fruit, of freely choosing to say “Yes!” to God is love. Obeying God is learning how to love.
Obedience to God’s Will opens up the whole secret of life for you. Jesus is telling us that obedience to the Will of God — actually doing what the Lord teaches us to do — is the only way to achieve genuine pleasure, happiness, fulfillment, joy, genuine wholeness of life. We say these things — week after week we say them — but do we really believe them enough to act accordingly? Or do we keep on frantically pushing and shoving and trying to have our own way — fighting God right down to the bitter end?
A cartoon appeared in one of the magazines in which a mother and father are arguing over junior’s budding musical career. “All right,” the horrified father exclaims, “so he’ll grow up to be a tuba virtuoso. But can’t he just take lessons? Does he have to practice?” Absurd as it may seem, this is what we’re saying about our own lives if we’re traveling down the middle of the road paved with good intentions. We talk about living a virtuoso Christian life but we don’t want to practice it. We’re trying to meet with Christ, but on our own terms. We want to talk our way into His company. But it can’t be done. “He who obeys the commandments he has received from Me is the man who loves Me,” Jesus says. The person who loves Jesus is the person who relates to others in the spirit of compassionate, understanding, concerned, loving service. Do it now — in your very next encounter with another human person.