My parents never subscribed to Highlights for Children -- I preferred Children’s Digest because it ran Tintin adventures – but occasionally I would read the magazine when I was little in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. On for the regular features that use to run in Highlights – (and probably still does; Highlights will exist as long as there are pediatrician clinics) – was a cartoon called “Goofus and Gallant”.
If you’ve ever read Highlights, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Gallant and Goofus are two brothers; at least I’ve always assumed they are related. The first panel would show Gallant doing something polite and respectful; say, helping an old lady across the street; and the second panel would show Goofus in the same situation doing something stupid; like taking cell phone video of the old lady getting hit by a car to post on YouTube.
There was no plot to these cartoons; just the salutary example of the Good Boy contrasted with the deplorable example of the Bad one. Sometimes Goofus would go first, sometimes Gallant; but the strip always gave us this nice contrast between the Right Way and the Wrong Way.
This kind of dualism is a natural way to convey a moral message: Good vs. Evil; Virtue vs. Vice; Minneapolis vs. St. Paul. It’s not surprising that Jesus used this kind of comparison in one of his parables.
What is surprising is that he did it wrong.
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” (Matthew 21:28-30 NIV)
That’s not how it’s supposed to go! He mixed the brothers up! It’s as if Goofus set the table for dinner and Gallant stuck lima beans up his nose. How could Jesus make such a mistake?
Maybe because Jesus wanted to convey a different message.
Let’s back up a bit and look at the context. On the occasion he told this parable, Jesus was teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem, one of the plazas within the walls of the Temple, but outside the building itself. There he encountered some of the chief priests and elders of people who wanted to know where the hell he got the idea he could set himself up as some kind of a prophet. “By what authority are you doing these things … And who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)
Perhaps they were genuinely curious as to the source of his teachings, but given Jesus’ response, I suspect they were hoping he’d say something they could use against him.
Jesus answers with a question of his own:
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” (Matthew 21:24-25)
He threw the “Gotcha” question right back at them. John the Baptist had died only a year or two before and was widely regarded as a prophet. If the authorities agreed that he was a messenger from God, Jesus could reasonably ask why they ignored him. On the other hand, if they said that John was just a guy with no divine mandate, they’d be going against popular opinion.
Unwilling to commit themselves, they replied “We don’t know.” And so Jesus said “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matthew 21:27)
Now, at first glance, this exchange doesn’t seem to have much connection to the parable Jesus tells immediately afterward; but considering who his audience at the time, it’s pretty obvious whom Jesus intended the second son to represent: the religious elites, the self-righteous ones who uttered pious platitudes, but whose lives reflected neither God’s justice, nor his compassion. And if the priests saw this pointed at themselves, well, if the funny hat don’t fit, you don’t gots to wear it.
At the end of his parable, Jesus asks these priests, which of the two sons did what his father wanted? They had to answer, “The first.”
Who, then, does the first son represent? Jesus tells them, and brings the parable back to the point he made earlier:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)
“Prostitutes and tax collectors” are often used in the Gospel as a shorthand for people considered social outcasts for their wickedness: prostitutes because they lived outside the approved sexual mores, and tax collectors because they were essentially collaborationists, private contractors hired by the occupying Romans to collect taxes, who profited by collecting more than Rome required and pocketing the difference. The Gospels often lump “sinners and tax collectors” together in the same group.
TO me this parable says two things. Most obviously, it condemns the hypocrite who talks the talk, but who shows far less nimbleness in the walking department. Christians like to call this type of behavior pharisaical, although that’s grossly unfair because it paints a simplistic view of what the Pharisees taught and because it lets the Sadducees, who also opposed Jesus, completely off the hook, not to mention the Herodians. Singling out the Pharisees also lets us pretend that we today aren’t also guilty of obsessing about the letter of the Law while blowing off the spirit.
But Goofus and Gallant are all about compare and contrast. While the Parable of the Brothers in the Vineyard condemns the hypocrite, it also commends the person who outwardly seems to be ungodly, at least by the prissy, external criteria of the hypocrite, but who nevertheless strives to be charitable, decent and ethical in his personal life.
I have to admit that a lot of Christians have trouble with this. I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, which emphasizes that we are saved by God’s Grace, not by our own Good Works, and which regards the doctrine of “Works Righteousness” as an anathema. We like to quote the passage from Isaiah that “… all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6)
But I think we make too much of that verse. My own Good Works may indeed be worthless – for the purposes of buying my way into Heaven – but they have value in other respects.
For one thing, we are told that it pleases God when we do his will, even if we don’t wholly succeed in our attempts. That in itself is a biggie. For another, the Good Works that we do are how we respond to God’s love for us. As James puts it: “Show me your faith without deed, and I will show you my faith by what I do. … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:18,26)
But perhaps most importantly, from a strictly practical point of view, doing Good Works makes our world a better place. You don’t need to believe in the Gospel of Christ to understand that; you don’t even have to believe in God.
I’ve heard some Christians express the perverse notion that Good Works are only virtuous when they are performed by Bible-believing Christians, and that works performed by anybody else, no matter what the intention, is self-serving and sinful. I can’t agree. An act which helps my neighbor helps my neighbor and this is true whether I am trying to follow God’s Law or the promptings of my own conscience. It certainly makes no difference to my neighbor.
“But surely,” one might say, “it is better still to respect God AND to obey his Commandments!” Well, there is that. That’s the problem with dualistic examples like Goofus and Gallant; they provide two contrasting examples with no gradations of nuance in-between. But by focusing on this particular contrast in this particular parable, Jesus is telling us to look at the results rather than what color jersey a person is wearing and if they’re on “our team”.