How do we work out our salvation?
In the gospel lesson for this week (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus is parrying a rhetorical attack by the chief priests and elders of the Temple. Since we saw him last week, he has entered Jerusalem, and over the next eight Sundays, we’ll be hearing the stories that happened in the first Holy Week, the things he taught in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. It is still early in the week. In this chapter he turns over the tables of the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and then he curses a fig tree that fails to give him fruit, and in the midst of that display of the most human emotion we see from him in Matthew’s gospel, the leaders challenge him. Who said you can do these things? He is upsetting the status quo, and they want to hear the reason why from his own mouth.
He answers a question with a question, which they don’t dare answer, and then he tells them a story about two brothers. Both are sent by their father to work in the vineyard. One says no, but later thinks better of it and goes to work. The other says yes, but doesn’t go. Which one obeyed his father? This time they answer, and it’s the right answer. It’s the one who went to do the work who did the will of his father, not the one who gave the right answer without any actions to back it up.
I preached these texts on the day my youngest child was confirmed. Now, I want to be clear. It’s possible to live a life of faith without ever saying the words she said in affirming her Baptism. It’s also possible to make the promises very sweetly and never live into them. That was Jesus’ indictment of the religious leaders. They knew the right words to say; they just didn’t bother to work in the vineyard. But there are more choices than just those two! We can say the words and strive to live them.
It’s important to remember that whether we’re being baptized or confirmed or becoming members of a local church or simply conversing with God about where we are in our lives, we make the promises about how we will live with the understanding that doing so requires God’s help. The qualities we are urged to express in Paul’s letter to the Philippians do not come easily. He tells us clearly, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12b, NRSV). I put my emphasis on the trembling. The work of faith shakes us. Even Jesus, who took on our form and lived a human life, lost his temper, and while his indignation in the Temple was surely righteous, his anger at a fig tree proves his humanity.
If it could happen to Jesus, surely we all need help to live a life that pleases God.
I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.