None of us likes to be on the receiving end of direct orders. Even when the order comes from a legitimate authority, the moment the order is delivered, we bristle. Our autonomy – to do what we like when we like – is threatened.
Even in institutions which function by giving and following orders like the military, the wise officer only gives direct orders in the context of a shared mission: this order is for us, rather than for you.
We recognise in ourselves the two sons ordered to work in the vineyard. We too can say ‘Yes’ to an order and then work out how to get out of doing it. We too can say ‘No’, and then grudgingly turn to obedience. In our fear and timidity, we can also find a dozen other ways of passive-aggressive obedience or disobedience.
Jesus asks, ‘Which of the two did the will of the Father?’ (Matthew 21:31a) His listeners sided with the son who obeyed after initially refusing. But his was the ‘least worst’ option. Neither of the sons responded with a heartful ‘Yes’ and went out and diligently worked the vineyard. That would have been their father’s hope.
The father, the owner of this vineyard, got it wrong. God is not like this father. This father needs lessons in human resource management and parenting. Jesus is teaching a better way of leading than giving direct orders. If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will. This kind of authority neither the ‘chief priests [nor] the elders of the people’ (v. 23) could understand.
God generally does not give direct orders. God builds relationship and empathy. God invites and calls. God knows what we are like. God knows we trip over our autonomy when told what to do. God always leaves us room for a free response.
We as Christian leaders can do better than the owner of this vineyard: we can lead by love and example, as Jesus did. People will respond according to the authenticity they see in us.
As Christian followers, our challenge is to discern God’s will and try to do it in heartfelt obedience.