Having spent the night after the dramatic events of Palm Sunday in Bethany, about a half-hour walk from Jerusalem, Jesus returns to the capital in the morning to preach in the Temple. Fig Monday is a day of parables, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, and many of those parables are difficult, not least the story from which the day gets its name, where Jesus, feeling peckish, stops for a snack and causes a fig tree to wither away because it had no fruit.
Let us instead turn to one which, at first glance, keeps us on familiar territory in the Gospel narratives – the Parable of the Two Sons.
A man with two sons asks them both to go and work in his vineyard. One says he will but doesn’t; the other says he won’t, but changes his mind later and gets stuck in. The latter, obviously, was the one doing what his father wanted. Jesus then tells the ‘chief-priests and elders of the nation’ that tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them: even before Jesus began his public ministry, they listened to John the Baptist when he showed them they right way to live, while the religious élite refused to believe that they were not already living correctly.
The meaning is obvious – ‘actions speak louder than words’, and holding high religious office is no guarantee of doing God’s will. Indeed, arguably the reverse is the case. The more famous Parable of the Good Samaritan says much the same thing, and it is a repeated theme throughout the Gospels. Doing the will of God is about how one lives one’s life, not which creeds one decides to give intellectual assent to.
I wonder if familiarity with this message makes us insufficiently sensitive of what it means for our own lives. Who do we identify ourselves with in this parable – the prostitutes or the priests? It seems to me that Christians want to enter the kingdom with the prostitutes while continuing to act like the priests – obsessing about other people’s alleged failings, appointing ourselves as God’s personal bouncers deciding who is or isn’t fit for salvation, and justifying it all by reaching for the appropriate proof-text from the Scriptures.
How often do we act like we have all the answers, that other people would be OK – OK with God and OK in themselves – if only they bought the ideas we try to sell them?
Much Christian evangelism is doomed before it even begins by this attitude. We too often structure our relationship with others, despite the best intentions, by placing ourselves on a pedestal before God, and others beneath us, as if we have all the solutions and everyone else has only problems. We create our own classes of prostitutes, assuring ourselves they are far from God so we can affirm our own holiness. To be a gay Christian in Northern Ireland is to experience this often and, yes, liberal Christians do this too. I catch myself at it a lot – if only those nasty reactionary bigots would understand how right I am about Christianity, then the world would be a much better place.
Theologically, this is nonsense; Christians simply have no grounds, in Scripture or otherwise, for claiming to be better than anyone else. The often poisonous relationships within and between Christian denominations give lie to this idea, not to mention the quite bizarre bits of nastiness that happen all to frequently between members of congregations.
So much of what passes for evangelism seems to be a competition to prove we are closest to God. We holy people will bring the poor benighted Godless masses to faith by the sheer Godliness of our preaching and our lives. We forget that God can make sons of stones if He wants. It reminds me of the unedifying spectacle where James and John go behind the other disciples’ backs to ask Jesus if they can sit next to him in heaven – let us not pretend that we are immune to temptations that overcame those two great saints.
Like them, we find it all too easy to miss the point; living the Christian life is not about accomplishing a set of goals to gain a reward. Salvation lies in accepting that we can never accomplish enough – and it doesn’t matter. God has already bought our reward in his sacrifice on the Cross. Our task is to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand – and to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner and bury the dead. Not because we might win converts by doing so, but because every human being is loved utterly by God, and when we do these things for even the most marginalised and despised people of all, we do them for Christ. Not in abstract, but for God himself personally.