When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, `From heaven,' he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, `Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
"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. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the
In music, ironically enough, it’s called “soul”. You can have all the chops, licks, and technical skill in the worlds, but if you ain’t got soul, your music will sound flat. If you were asked to define what soul is, you might say, “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I hear it.” Soul is the indefinable ability to transcend the rules of music and inject emotion and feeling into it. People who stick to the rules, playing each note exactly when they should play it in rigid time, can’t achieve soul. They will only ever be proficient players, without making anything that we can listen to with pleasure, without making music that will touch our emotions. They hold something back of themselves, relying on the skill of their hands to create music, but never achieving the true aim of music.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is talking about something very similar. He provides an illustration of two brothers, one who refused to go work in the vineyard as requested by his father, but later relented and went and another brother who agreed to go, but didn’t. It was an illustration of the difference between true faith and religion. The Pharisees followed all the rules, but never opened themselves up to be truly changed by their relationship with God. They felt that if they could just live each day, following along the course that had been laid out by other Pharisees, that they would please God. But it doesn’t work that way.
As Christians, we also have a set of rules that we follow. We have liturgy and ways of doing things that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And we can get very hung up on following those rules. Like all humans, we love rules and traditions. They allow us to feel comfortable and safe in a world that can be anything but. Our problems come when we start leaning on the rules, instead of leaning on God. We become the son that agreed to go work, yet did not.
The 19th-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard described two kinds of religion—Religion A and Religion B. The first is “faith” in name only as described by Paul in his second letter to Timothy: “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” It’s the practice of attending church without having genuine faith.
Religion B, on the other hand, is a life-transforming experience. It’s a firm commitment Jesus Christ, which creates a permanent relationship between ourselves and a gracious and forgiving God.
For many years British author C. S. Lewis had great difficulty in becoming a Christian, which can be attributed to the difference between the two religions. Religion A had blinded him to Religion B. His brother Warren wrote that his conversion was “no sudden plunge into a new life, but rather a slow, steady convalescence from a deep-seated spiritual illness—an illness that had its origins in our childhood, in the dry husks of religion offered by the semi-political churchgoing of Ulster, and the similar dull emptiness of compulsory church during our school days.”
God wants relationship. He wants us to let down our guard and let Him in. He wants to change us, to heal us, not lock us into the same place we were when we found Him.
We resist the change that God wants to make in us because it’s not safe, because it’s not comfortable. We like to feel safe, we like our rules. How can we get past being a religious rule follower and break free to become all that God wants us to be?
Throwing out all the rules is not the answer. Linda Brown Holt, an independent scholar in the field of comparative religious literature, said this:
Ideally, spirituality emanates from religion, religion creates a safe, encouraging environment in which spirituality emerges and grows. Religion is form: tradition, doctrine, rites and rituals. Spirituality is content: communion with the divine, seeing the holy in all creatures and objects. In reality, this is not always the case. Religion gone bad results in the triumph of form over content resulting in rituals without meaning and the exaltation of dogma. Spirituality at its worst is mindless drivel, the egotism of the individual believer, even madness.
Clearly, we need a place where people can feel safe to explore their developing relationship with God. Our forms of worship can provide that safe place. But we are not meant to stay safe. We are meant to change.
David Roher provides this illustration about change:
The motor home has allowed us to put all the conveniences of home on wheels. A camper no longer needs to contend with sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking over a fire, or hauling water from a stream. Now he can park a fully equipped home on a cement slab in the midst of a few pine trees and hook up to a water line, a sewer line and electricity. One motor home I saw recently had a satellite dish attached on top. No more bother with dirt, no more smoke from the fire, no more drudgery of walking to the stream. Now it is possible to go camping and never have to go outside.
We buy a motor home with the hope of seeing new places, of getting out into the world. Yet we deck it out with the same furnishings as in our living room. Thus nothing really changes. We may drive to a new place, set ourselves in new surrounding, but the newness goes unnoticed, for we’ve only carried along our old setting.
The adventure of new life in Christ begins when the comfortable patterns of the old life are left behind.
Is your faith like the motor home, allowing you to stay safe and comfortable? Or has it changed you, challenging you to become more than you are, greater than the sum of your parts, more like Christ? How can we tell if we are?
Our primary measuring tool for spiritual transformation is this: has our faith brought us more joy? Has it enabled us to be kinder to those around us? Have we found peace despite our struggle with the burdens that weigh us down? Can we praise God, even in the midst of all the bad things that happen to us? If we can’t say yes to these questions, we probably haven’t grown much as Christians.
So how do we go about putting “soul” into our religion? Just as in studying music we train ourselves by playing scales and arpeggios, we have to train ourselves in the sorts of spiritual disciplines that allow us to overcome the sins that is our primary obstacles in the process of our transformation. How do we do that?
Dallas Willard wrote in The Spirit of the Disciplines (Word, 1988) that spiritual disciplines can be divided into two corresponding categories: disciplines of engagement, like worship or study or prayer; and disciplines of abstinence, like fasting or solitude or silence.
Sins of commission, such as gossip, need a discipline of abstinence like silence. Sins of omission, such as not making an effort to find the joy that God meant each of us to have, require the discipline of worship. By praising God daily for all that he has provided for us, we can find that joy.
I’m sure that we all know what the sins that we each need to work on, those areas that give us that uncomfortable twinge in our conscience, the ways we have grieved God “by we have done and by what we have left undone”. Sound familiar?
There is an interested story called the “Musgrave Ritual” by Arthur Conan Doyle, which was one of the stories he wrote featuring his famous character, Sherlock Holmes. The story was about a missing butler, who had been very interested in a family ritual of his employers that had been handed down from father to son for hundreds of years. The family faithfully taught this ritual to the oldest son to be repeated when he inherited. This was how it went:
"'Whose was it?'
"'His who is gone.'
"'Who shall have it?'
"'He who will come.'
"'Where was the sun?'
"'Over the oak.'
"'Where was the shadow?'
"'Under the elm.'
"How was it stepped?'
"'North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.'
"'What shall we give for it?'
"'All that is ours.'
"'Why should we give it?'
"'For the sake of the trust.'
The family had repeated this ritual faithfully for many years, even though they no longer knew what it meant. Sherlock Holmes, with his superior powers of deduction, was able to figure out, as the butler had, that this cryptic message was meant to keep the memory of where the royal crown of Charles I had been hidden on the family property when that monarch was fleeing from the armies of Oliver Cromwell.
Like the Musgrave Ritual, the words of our liturgy hold the keys to the treasure we seek. The danger we face is in investing too much into the ritual of repeating them, without really getting to the reason why we say them to begin with. By really listening to those words as we say them, by allowing the Holy Spirit to invest them with meaning and reality, and then by moving that reality out of the church building and into our daily lives, we can train ourselves to build up our spiritual “muscle”. And instead of a cage that traps us, our liturgy becomes a cocoon that nurtures the spiritual life growing within us, so that it eventually emerges as the butterfly that God meant it to be: changed, free, beautiful.