Day 188: Matthew 21:43 – Part 3

 And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.

[This is the third installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]

Jesus, the chief priests, and the elders have been doing some verbal sparring on Days 182-185.  And now, Jesus ends the exchange with a very direct statement –“And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.” 

On Day 186 I reflected that the fruit Jesus is looking for is probably love, and on Day 187 I questioned whether or not Jesus would find fruit in today’s churches.  I concluded that love is indeed manifested in many of today’s churches.  I proposed that churches are generally both able and willing to provide long-term love and support for those in need.  But, if that’s the case, then why aren’t the “outcasts” that Jesus loved so much flocking to the churches?

Well, I think there are a lot of reasons.  Of course there are good churches and bad churches out there, and if a person gets burned by a bad one they often give up and never try another one.  Nevertheless I think there are a lot more good churches than bad ones out there, especially the mainline Protestant churches.  They may not be the most exciting when it comes to entertainment value, but they are the safest for today’s outcasts.  They tend to be kinder and there is less pressure to conform than in evangelical, charismatic, Roman Catholic and other flavors of churches.   For people in need or those who have been rejected by society, the mainline churches are a good choice.  However, like the social outcasts that they love to serve, mainline churches are sort of invisible.  They don’t receive have much media attention and they don’t do a very good job getting their message out there.  Consequently, I think many of today’s social outcasts avoid the churches that could provide them with so much support primarily because they have misconceptions and fears about mainline churches.  Just for fun I think I’ll explore those misconceptions and fears a little bit.                       

Misconceptions about Churches

  • Misconception #1 – Church people are mean and judgmental – In my experience every church has a couple of unbelievably saintly people and a couple of absolute stinkers.  Most of the other people are just nice, well-meaning folks who like to worship and grow in love and get involved with other people who want to help change the world for the better.  Not everyone in church has this goal, but I can’t think of any other place where you are more likely to find people like this.  Most people are nice, so you just have to ignore the few stinkers.
  •  Misconception #2 – Church never changes – A lot of people I’ve talked to attended church in the 1960s or 1980s or whatever and haven’t been back since.  Churches are always changing.  I’d say, in general, they are more casual, more friendly, and less boring than they were a few decades ago.  You can’t tell the difference between the rich and the poor based on how they dress, so everyone fits in.
  • Misconception #3 – Most people come to church to learn and study the Bible – Every church has sermons and classes, but the main reason people come is to enjoy fellowship with other Christians.  They come for friendship, encouragement, conversation, networking, sharing, and those kinds of things.  They want to be part of a community that is trying to make the world a better place.
  • Misconception #4 – Church is a really just another self-improvement program – Church is sometimes marketed as though it’s a self-improvement program, the goal of which is normalcy and respectability.  That was never Jesus’ intention.  He had the sense to know that certain people really don’t want to be normal and respectable.  They just want to be themselves and have a happy life.  Jesus wasn’t big on self-improvement.  He was big on self-awareness, but not self-improvement.  His mission was to help people realize that they are children of God and expand their perceptions about what they are capable of.  He never pushed them to be normal and respectable.  He pushed them to be extraordinary and unconventional.  He helped them find themselves.  He didn’t try to push them into a mold.   Neither do most churches, although over time your new church friends may try to help you find and develop your own special gifts.
  • Misconception #5 – You have to have to pretend to have a perfect life to be accepted at church – Mainline churches generally emphasize that God loves you wherever you are at.  They teach that everyone is acceptable in the eyes of God.  In most mainline Protestant churches the prevailing wisdom is that God loves you for who you are, not for what you do.  They teach that nothing you do can make him love you more or less.  So, for outcasts, this is good news. And this “liberal theology” is very much in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus didn’t tell the outcasts he ministered to that they were inadequate.  He didn’t fixate on their flaws or tell them they were going to hell.  He reserved that kind of rhetoric for the Pharisees and other religious leaders.  He was kind to the people he served.  He told them they were the salt of the earth, the light for the world, that they could heal themselves and others, that they could do anything through faith.  Sure, there are churches out there that say you will go to hell if you are gay or divorced or on drugs or having an affair or not diligent about your prayer life or pro-choice or a multitude of other things, but for mainline Protestant churches this is the exception rather than the rule. 
  •  Misconception #6 – Churches are social service agencies – People in need often come to church in the same way that they go to a social service agency, expecting to receive economic assistance or some other handout without getting involved with the church community.   In reality most churches have very limited funds for this kind of assistance, so those who come to church for this kind of help usually go away disappointed.  However, as I pointed out yesterday, churches are communities of love and are capable of providing needy people with many different kinds of ongoing support if they choose to become part of the community.

 And Here Some Things People Fear about Churches

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  • They are afraid of people in general – In my experience many people end up homeless or on drugs or in economic trouble because they have relational dysfunction.  However, if they can overcome their fear, those who have problems relating to others can get a lot of help and advice in this area.  In all churches there is a lot of gentle fellowship, as well as great teaching about self-worth, the importance of forgiveness, and letting go of the past.
  • They are afraid they won’t fit in – At one level, everyone is different.  At another level, everyone is the same.  At most churches they work hard to make everyone feel welcome.  At most churches everyone fits in.  For every church that is unfriendly and unwelcoming, there are thousands that bend over backwards to make sure everyone feels wanted and appreciated.
  • They are afraid someone will hurt their feelings – This is a danger.  Someone in church will probably eventually hurt their feelings because that’s the way it works with relationships.  But church can help heal people’s emotional wounds so that they become less sensitive.  It can also serve as an emotional proving ground where people can learn how to work out conflicts and hurt feelings in a productive manner.  Because most church people really want to get along with each other, it’s a great place to pick up some skills in this area.
  • They are afraid they will feel worse about themselves – Generally, churches work pretty hard to make people feel better about themselves, just like Jesus did.  If a church systematically and collectively is demeaning to those in need, it’s not going to produce the fruit of love. There are a lot of good ones out there, but if a person is plagued by shame and guilt, going to church can stir up these negative emotions.  They need to be healed of these things before they can connect with others in a church. 

As I said earlier, I think churches have a role to play in helping those in need in the same way that Jesus did, but I think they could do a better serving those who are isolated and in need.  That’s going to be the subject of tomorrow’s blog as I finish off this discussion of good fruit.  What could the church do to minister more effectively to the today’s outcasts – the homeless, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the bitter, the lonely, the isolated. 

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 187: Matthew 21:43 – Part 2

 And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.

[This is the second installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]  

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A little while ago my sister posted something on Facebook that caught my eye.  It’s been around for a while so you may have seen it.  There is a blind, homeless man on the sidewalk with a sign that says, “I’m blind. Please help.”  Very few people are giving him donations.  A young woman comes by, changes the sign, and suddenly people the money starts pouring in.  When the young woman reappears, the blind man asks her what she did to his sign to make people so generous.  She says, “I wrote the same thing with different words.”  What did she write?  “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.”  The video then ends with the words, “Change your words. Change your world.”

After I shared the video, I got a Facebook conversation with my sister and a couple of friends about the difficulties involved in helping those in need.  She is retired now, having worked in social services for more than 30 years.  She has a great love for people and a clear understanding of the difficulties involved with providing the kind of care that actually helps change people’s lives for the better. 

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It really hit me.  What group, other than the church, creates communities that are truly diverse?  What group, other than the church, embraces those in need in lateral relationships?  Governmental social services, rehab facilities, and other similar agencies are of great help for those in need in our society, and the people they serve are treated with respect.  But they are not treated like equals.  They are treated like dependents.  They are treated like ducks.

Ducks?  OK, let me explain that.  In Chicago we lived near a park that had a little pond.  It was a breeding ground for ducks.  All around the pond there were signs that said, “Do not feed the ducks.  If you feed the ducks the pond will get overcrowded and dirty and the ducks will die of disease.  Please keep the ducks healthy.  Do not feed the ducks.”  And yet every day of the week you could go there and see someone feeding the ducks.  There was something so compelling to city dwellers about feeding the ducks that they just couldn’t stop.  They liked the way the ducks ran toward them when they threw out the food.  They liked feeling like they had helped the ducks.  But in reality they were killing the ducks, but I guess they didn’t care.  They didn’t have to dispose of the dead ducks.  The park district and friends of the park did that for them.  So there was really two layers of unhealthy dependency – ducks that were inappropriately dependent on people, and people who were irresponsibly dependent on park district caretakers.

That’s what my sister was saying on the Facebook post.  Government really can’t do an effective job helping those in need because of its limited financial, emotional, and creative resources.  It can only be done through communities where people are encouraged and challenged; where they are can practice and improve their relational skills; where they can discover that they have great worth and that they are capable of helping others; where they can love and be loved.  Jesus didn’t think affluence and prosperity were good fruit.  It was the fruit he was always looking for.  It was the fruit that was missing from the Temple and the religion and the culture of his day.

I am always amazed at how welcoming people in churches are when it comes to people who have disabilities or special needs.  Even in our church in Chicago where people didn’t have much money, they extended warm hospitality and did everything they could to help someone out.  For example our old church building’s sanctuary could be reached only by climbing two long sets of stairs.  When a man in a wheelchair started attending the church, the men carried both the man and the wheelchair up and down those stairs every week.  If someone in the community lost their housing they usually received an invitation from a church member.  They were always willing to pray for each other and provide a sympathetic ear.  The members took turns providing a big meal every Sunday after church so that everyone would have at least one really great meal every week.  They didn’t have a lot, but they shared what they had.  Anyone with a perceived need would be sent home with a lot of carry-outs, too.  And even though certain people had more needs than others, the relationships were always lateral.  It was never the “haves” and the “have nots”, the givers and the receivers.  People treated each other with respect.  It was a true community.

At one point in my career I had to more or less force one of my employees to take early retirement because he didn’t want to step up his computer skills.  It was time for him to let it go, but he was extremely angry.  Several years later he came back and visited me.  He said that after he was retired for three years he got brain cancer.  He told me what it was like to go through that as a person who had no family.  Even though he had not been an involved member of his church, he said that from the day he got his diagnosis his church was just wonderful to him.  They took him to the doctor.  They held his had before he went into surgery.  When he was released from the hospital they brought him dinner, washed his clothes, made sure he was taking his medicine, read to him, cleaned his house, and continued to take him to the doctor.  I guess they also taught him about forgiveness because he told me how grateful he was that I laid him off.  Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the gift of those three years when he didn’t have to work, before he got the disease.  He said they were the best years of his life.  He was moved to tears when he described the kindness of the people of his church.  And he wasn’t the kind to cry.  When I knew him he was pretty distant and aloof and self-sufficient.  But that church awakened the love in his heart by loving him well.

I’ve mentioned before that our current church serves as a homeless shelter and food donation center.  It’s a small church and we don’t get a lot of visitors, but one day this little white suburban church amazed me with its care for a middle-aged Black couple who wandered in during the middle of one of our services.  They seemed a little addled.  During the time of greeting they were welcomed so warmly by everyone with hugs and conversation that I thought they must have been to the church before, but that was not the case.  After the service our pastor talked to them and found out that they trying to get to Indiana but they were lost.  Someone at a gas station told them to come to our church.  The pastor drew up a little map with directions to Indiana.  He was worried about whether they had enough gas so he gave them a little money from our assistance fund, and had my husband offer up a prayer for their safe travels.  They went on their way and we haven’t seen them since.  It was sweet.  They were church fans, so I’m sure they found a good one in Indianapolis.  I’m sure they found a caring community where they could love and be loved for the long term.

Like I said in the Facebook exchange, every church I have ever been to has warmly welcomed people in need and would love to have the opportunity to serve and learn from a blind man.  They would encourage him and feed him and make sure his material needs were take care of.  They would make sure he had decent housing. They would try to find something useful for him to do with his time.  They would ask him about what it’s like to be blind and pray for him to be healed.  They would ask about his medical condition and find out whether there’s any possibility that it could be corrected surgically.  They would find ways to cheer him up and make him laugh.  They would hug him.  They would love him.

The woman in the Facebook video about the blind man displayed this same kind of love and respect for the blind man that is demonstrated routinely by churches.  But she is only one person and she can only do so much.  And while she did a good deed, the video doesn’t indicate that she went on to become the man’s friend.  He had more money, but he was just as alone as he was before the woman changed his sign.

Most churches treat all people like real people.  They don’t treat people like ducks.  I think that the churches are generally both able and willing to provide long-term love and support for those in need.  I think they are a big role to play the solution for a lot of society’s problems.  But if the church is so loving and supportive and helpful, why is it shrinking?  It’s not because people don’t have needs, that’s for sure.  Why aren’t people flocking to the churches?

Tomorrow will be another reflection on today’s church and its fruit.  And maybe a suggestion on how to get a little more of that fruit to set.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 186: Matthew 21:43 – Part 1

 And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.

[This is the first installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]

Jesus, the chief priests, and the elders have been doing some verbal sparring on Days 182-185.  And now, Jesus ends the exchange with a very direct statement –“And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”

This statement, or prophecy, or whatever you want to call it is a direct reference back to the fig tree incident on Day 181:

On his way back to the city early next morning, Jesus was hungry.  He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. So he said to the tree, “You will never again bear fruit!” At once the fig tree dried up. (Matthew 18-19).

The problem, Jesus says, is that like the fig tree, the religious authorities they are not doing their job.  They are not doing the will of God.  They are not doing what priests are supposed to do – acting as intermediaries between God and man, standing in the gap, reconciling the entire world with God.  They are not like the responsible shepherd who searches tirelessly for the lost sheep (See Day 161). The Temple and the religious traditions are not bearing good fruit, and so they are going to be replaced.

I’m sure the chief priests, the elders, and all the rest of the religious authorities never saw this coming.  They feared being overrun or overwhelmed by outsiders and their foreign religions, but I’m sure they never considered that God himself might take away their jobs which they executed with such efficiency and painstaking attention to detail.  After all, they were meticulous about obeying the letter of the Law of Moses.  Why wouldn’t God approve of their hard work?  Why were they less useful now than they were in the past?  I’m sure they dismissed Jesus’ prophecy as ridiculous. I’m sure they thought Jesus was some kind of pompous jerk.

After all, any changes in the Temple, the priests, and atonement through animal sacrifice would represent a seismic shift in the religious and cultural life of the Jews.  Unimaginable.  It was a far greater change than anything that has ever happened within Christianity, where the splits and schisms are all based on relatively minor disagreements.  Today this would be comparable to the elimination of  church buildings, paid pastors, and the cross as a symbol of atonement.  Pretty directly comparable, actually.  Like I said, pretty unimaginable.  I doubt that the religious authorities felt threatened.  There were thousands of years of tradition on their side, and the whole thing ran like a well-oiled machine.  Kind of like a lot of churches nowadays.  Except that the machine isn’t running so well these days.  In fact, many assert that it’s about to conk out. 

That is not what authorities of Jesus’ day wanted to hear, and it’s not what any of us who love today’s churches want to hear. If you have followed this blog for very long you know that I worry about the church and whether it is really doing its job.  It’s pretty clear that the church has been declining in numbers over the last few decades, even though people continue to believe in God.  They believe in God, but not in church.  So is God letting his church die, or is it just getting pruned a little to prepare it for new growth?

The people in today’s churches have the best of intentions.  We want to see the Kingdom of God established here on earth, and we want God to be pleased with us.  We definitely don’t want to see God take away our churches and our ministries and give them to someone else. Just as people go through periods of self-examination, I think it’s essential for churches to do the same if they want to bear fruit and remain viable.  So, I begin this examination by looking at the fruit of the ministry of Jesus and what he did to cultivate that fruit.  It seems like the logical first step.

ImageJesus says on Day 140 that he came for the lost sheep of Israel.  It seems to me that the main fruit of Jesus’ ministry was revealed in his ministry to the outcasts – including the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the children, the blind, the crippled, the possessed.  They were ignored by the religious institution and society in general because they were flawed, diseased, or regarded as inferior.  They had fallen between the cracks.  They were separated from God with no hope for reconciliation.  They were also separated from their fellow Jews.

So how did Jesus reach out to these people? How did he approach them?  Did he preach tough love, fire, and brimstone to these outcasts?  Did he require them to shape up and obey the Law of Moses?  Did he encourage them to conform to societal norms?  No. He was kind to them. He was a true friend.  He said they were more important to him than his own family (See Day 124).  He invested in them emotionally. He poured his life into them.  He ate with them and talked with them and healed them and told them about God’s love and expressed his confidence in them.  He didn’t give them stuff.  He empowered them by teaching them about the wonderful things they were capable of doing if they exercised their faith.  By doing this he was able to get these outcasts to open up their hearts, connect with God, and connect with each other. This was the good fruit of Jesus’ ministry.  Relational healing.  Reconciliation with God and one another.  Connection. Love.  Love is the fruit that Jesus’ ministry produced.

So Jesus told the religious authorities that what they weren’t producing enough good fruit.  There wasn’t enough love.  Are today’s churches really doing the work of Jesus.  Are they producing the good fruit of love, or will their fate be the same as fig tree and the Temple?  Will God curse them and move in another direction?

This discussion of this same scripture continues for the next three days as I examine today’s religious “fig trees” to see if I think there’s any good fruit out there. 

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 185: Matthew 21:42

Haven’t you ever read what the Scriptures say?  “The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.  This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is!”

This scripture is pretty universally understood to mean that Jesus is the foundation of a new religious order; the leader of the new people that God is going to use to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.

However, when I went to the source of this scripture that Jesus quotes here I was very surprised.  Jesus is quoting Psalm 118.  In the tradition of the church this psalm is called, “A Prayer of Thanks for Victory.”  Jesus must have taken great comfort in this joyful, hopeful psalm, which seems to be written just for him at this difficult time in his life.  Except that it was written about 1000 years earlier.

The psalm begins with praise for the goodness and eternal love of God for his people.  Throughout this ministry Jesus tried to change the image from God from a hard, angry, cruel, unforgiving taskmaster to a kind and loving father. He tried to instill in people a positive view of God and an appreciation for this goodness.

Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal.  Let the people of Israel say, “His love is eternal.”  Let the priests of God say, “His love is eternal.” Let all who worship him say, “His love is eternal.”

Having recognized and given thanks for the love of God, the psalmist provides a testimony about how God has saved him from his enemies.  And through the words of this psalm Jesus expresses his own faith that God will rescue him from his enemies.

In my distress I called to the Lord; he answered me and set me free.  The Lord is with me, I will not be afraid; what can anyone do to me?  It is the Lord who helps me, and I will see my enemies defeated.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to depend on people.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to depend on human leaders.  Many enemies were around me; but I destroyed them by the power of the Lord! They were around me on every side; but I destroyed them by the power of the Lord!  They swarmed around me like bees, but they burned out as quickly as a brush fire; by the power of the Lord I destroyed them. I was fiercely attacked and was being defeated, but the Lord helped me.  The Lord makes me powerful and strong; he has saved me.

Now the psalmist praises God and gives thanks for the victory God has provided.  Jesus acknowledges the suffering he must endure, but looks forward to the vindication of the resurrection.

Listen to the glad shouts of victory in the tents of God’s people: “The Lord’s mighty power has done it! His power has brought us victory—his mighty power in battle!” I will not die; instead, I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done.  He has punished me severely, but he has not let me die.

Now the psalm refers to the Temple gate metaphorically as the “gate of the Lord.”  It is the source of today’s scripture about the stone rejected by the builders.  I think Jesus himself is the new gate, the cornerstone of the new temple which will not be a physical building.  It will be the gateway to the spiritual realm where we meet with God.

Open to me the gates of the Temple; I will go in and give thanks to the Lord!  This is the gate of the Lord; only the righteous can come in. I praise you, Lord, because you heard me, because you have given me victory.  The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.  This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is! This is the day of the Lord’s victory; let us be happy, let us celebrate!

The next section seems to refer almost directly to Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday – 1000 years before the actual event.  Those are the actual words that were used by the people as Jesus entered Jerusalem – “God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 21:9).  Also, it’s hard to miss that reference to branches.

Save us, Lord, save us!  Give us success, O Lord!  May God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  From the Temple of the Lord we bless you.  The Lord is God; he has been good to us.  With branches in your hands, start the festival and march around the altar.

And the psalm ends with thanksgiving and praise for the love of God.

You are my God, and I give you thanks; I will proclaim your greatness.  Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal.

Looking back, it’s pretty amazing, especially the Palm Sunday part.  I mean, Jesus could “decide” to enter on a donkey to “fulfill” Zechariah’s prophecy, but he couldn’t control the peoples’ response.  The people used the same words and carried branches, just like Psalm 118 describes.  The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus passed out the branches or told them what to say.  The entire Psalm 118 seems to be written for Jesus at this point in his life.

I wonder if the chief priests and the elders who were so antagonistic to Jesus were familiar with this psalm?  If I had been one of those chief priests and I was familiar with the teachings of Jesus, his arrival in Jerusalem, and the words of Psalm 118, I think would have been pretty concerned.  I think I might have given him the benefit of the doubt.  But maybe the religious leaders didn’t spend much time reading the Psalms.  They probably spent all of their time reading the Law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  They probably thought the Book of Psalms was a waste of time, so they wouldn’t have either known this psalm by heart or taken the time to look it up.  The entire reference to Psalm 118 probably all went right over their heads.  It seems that there was a lot that was going right over their heads, including the teachings of Jesus, will of God, the futility of killing their enemies, the future of the ill-fated Temple and the unholy decadence of their way of life.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 184: Matthew 21:33-40

Listen to another parable. There was once a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a hole for the wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to tenants and left home on a trip.

When the time came to gather the grapes, he sent his slaves to the tenants to receive his share of the harvest. The tenants grabbed his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again the man sent other slaves, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all he sent his son to them. ‘Surely they will respect my son,’ he said.

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the owner’s son. Come on, let’s kill him, and we will get his property!’ So they grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?

The chief priests and elders asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do the things that he does.  He responds with a trick question about John the Baptist. Then he shares “The Parable of the Two Sons” (Day 183) followed by today’s “Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard,” which is actually a prophecy presented in the form of a parable.

In “The Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard” a man builds a vineyard which he then entrusts to some tenants.  At harvest time he sends his slaves to collect his rightful share of the harvest.  The greedy tenants want all the grapes for themselves to they kill the slaves.  The man then sends his own son, and the tenants kill him as well in an attempt to steal the vineyard.  The only problem is that the rightful owner of the vineyard will ultimately return and reclaim his property.  And common sense says he’s not going to be happy about these dastardly tenants and the hot mess they have created.

  • Landowner is God.
  • Vineyard is the world.
  • Grapes are the people.
  • Harvest is a time the fulfillment of God’s intent for the restoration of the people to one another and to God.
  • Tenants are the religious authorities – priests, elders, teachers, Pharisees, etc.
  • Slaves are the prophets.
  • The son is Jesus.

So, here is my interpretation of the story.  God created the world and entrusted the care of it to the Jews (his chosen people) and their religious leaders.  At various times he sent prophets to speak for him and implement the changes that need to be made for the benefit of mankind so that they might grow closer to God and to one another.  However the religious leaders wanted to do things their own way and keep the people under their own control so they rejected the teachings of the prophets and treated them poorly.  God then sent Jesus, his son, to reclaim Israel’s outcasts – but they decided to kill him because he was a threat to their religious institution.  The parable ends with the question, “How will this be received by God?”  Just as the tenants would undoubtedly be evicted from the vineyard by the owner, so the Temple and the legalistic sacrificial system will be take away from the Jews.  Jesus is gently starting to break the news to those assembled that God is going to shut it all down.

It’s a great parable about the dark side of humanity – murder, violence, greed, entitlement, arrogance, and much more.  It is also a parable that reveals how Jesus perceives his upcoming death.  There is nothing in this parable that implies that Jesus is choosing to willingly “die for our sins.”  In fact, nowhere does he ever say that he dies to satisfy the penalty for the sins of all humanity.  That concept was introduced later in the New Testament to help people feel better about the cessation of Temple sacrifices. No, Jesus says he will be killed – he will be wrongfully, maliciously murdered – by those who want to steal the Kingdom of God away from the King.  He will be killed because the religious and political leaders of his day were murderous and sinful. And we still kill each other today because we are still sinful.  And we still suffer the penalties.

I think that to say that Jesus “died” is to be in denial about the atrocity that humanity committed when we killed him.  To say that he “had to die” is just a convenient way of avoiding the truth about the ugly, abhorrent, savage side of human nature. On Day 104 Jesus says, “From the time John preached his message until this very day the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violent attacks, and violent men try to seize it.  Jesus didn’t die to appease an angry God.  Jesus never said that God was disgusted with humanity.  Jesus said that God was our good and gracious Father.  Jesus believed in the goodness of ordinary people and had confidence in their ability to preach, teach, and heal the world.

I believe that Jesus was killed because people didn’t like him and what he had to say, just as many of God’s prophets had been killed and persecuted throughout history.  The religious establishment felt that Jesus was a threat to their established religion and social order.  Jesus didn’t die because God was mad at us; he was killed because men were mad at God.  They didn’t want to accept God’s truth.  That’s my opinion anyway based on what he has to say.  He says that violent men are trying to seize the Kingdom.  He repeatedly says, “I will be killed.”  By men, not God.  Because of their lust for power and money.  And to prop up their man-made religion.  There was no justification for the murder of the son in this parable, and there is no justification for the murder of Jesus.  To kill someone who is without blame is against God’s law.  God would not violate his own law by causing or encouraging humanity to kill his blameless son to satisfy his own blood lust.  That makes no sense.  Not to me, anyway.  No sense at all.

Jesus ends the parable by asking what will happen when the owner returns to his vineyard and finds that his son has been killed.  When John the Baptist was murdered there were no real repercussions.  Not even a ripple.  King Herod went on his merry way, the religious authorities ignored it completely, and his followers seemed to accept it with passive resignation.   In this parable Jesus implies that when they kill him, as he has been predicting for quite some time, there will indeed be repercussions.  And this prophecy is ultimately fulfilled after Jesus’ death.  The beloved Temple will be destroyed and the Jews are forced to abandon their cherished sacrificial system.  Yes, God ultimately throws out the tenants and reclaims his vineyard.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 183: Matthew 21:28-32

Now, what do you think? There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ ‘I don’t want to,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. ‘Yes, sir,’ he answered, but he did not go.

Which one of the two did what his father wanted?…I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.

Yesterday on Day 182 the chief priests and teachers of the Law asked Jesus who gave him the right to make a dramatic entrance into Jerusalem, clear the moneychangers out of the Temple, heal the blind and crippled, and teach unorthodox theology.

Jesus responds by bringing up the martyrdom of John the Baptist, which puts the religious authorities in a very tricky position.  John had been murdered by King Herod and they were afraid his angry followers might start a riot if they continued to challenge Jesus publicly.  Although Jesus won the argument, he continued to defend John’s ministry and accuse the religious authorities for failing to receive John’s message.

John the Baptist was a prophet, and his ministry was three-fold.   First, he came to say that God was unhappy with the religious leaders and practices of the day and that change was in the wind.  Second, he urged people to repent and seek God more diligently.  As a symbol of this fresh start he encouraged people to be baptized.  Third, he endorsed Jesus as the one appointed by God to show them what they should do and alleviate their suffering.

In this parable Jesus says that “the older son” represents the religious establishment.  The Jews believed that they were doing the will of God by following the letter of Law of Moses documented in the Torah.  They believed that meticulous observance of the Law was what was important to God. They were committed to doing the right thing, but Jesus says that they have missed the mark by failing to receive John’s message and heed his warning.  John the Baptist said that God likes humble and repentant spirit.  Jesus says that God wants to establish a true, intimate relationship with humanity that is not based on adherence a set of laws.  In the parable “the older son,” the religious establishment, says that it is committed to doing God’s will, but it really is not willing to establish that true relationship that God wants.

“The younger son” represents the followers of John the Baptist, the outcasts like tax collectors and prostitutes who have repentant hearts and are humbly seeking a real relationship with God and are therefore engaged with doing his true will.  They don’t talk about how holy they are; they just try to do the best they can to show love and kindness to others. 

Jesus says that even though they didn’t understand what John was talking about at first, the religious establishment should have rallied behind him when they saw how people were responding to his message.  They should have seen that John’s ministry was bearing good fruit and producing sincere believers and changed lives.  They should have seen that the followers of John the Baptist were pure of heart even though their actions many not have been perfect.  They should have seen it, but they didn’t.

Even though they didn’t do the right thing, does Jesus say that the legalistic religious community will go to hell?  No, but he says that the outcasts, the nasty people that the religious people look down on, the people they routinely exclude will be the first to be received into God’s kingdom: ”the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” 

Certainly the death of John the Baptist was one of the things that spurred Jesus on with his own ministry.  The injustice of his murder and the lack of repercussions or outcry by the religious establishment was a horrible indictment of both Jewish society and humanity in general.  Jesus knows that he will meet the same fate, and that he knows that murder is a violation of the God’s Law.  He knows that murder in the name of religion is not the will of God.  It recalls the prophecy of Isaiah, which, like this parable, refers to the Jewish people as a vineyard:

Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Almighty; the people of Judah are the vines he planted. He expected them to do what was good, but instead they committed murder. He expected them to do what was right, but their victims cried out for justice (Isaiah 5:7).

The chief priests and elders had good intentions.  They certainly intended to do the will of God, but they weren’t listening to him.  If they had been listening to God they would have been fans of John the Baptist.  They would have been fans of Jesus.  But they were not.  They were enemies of Jesus, very much involved in his demise.  While they were seeking to please God by performing sacrifices in the Temple, God was out in the streets with Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey.  God was with Jesus in the Temple as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers.  God was there with Jesus as he healed the blind and the crippled and taught about the Kingdom of God.  But they missed it.  They committed their lives to serving God but when he called they didn’t show up.  They were too engaged with keeping the Temple fires burning and finding fault in their fellow man. It’s a hazard of organized religion. You can lose touch not only with the world – you can also lose touch with God.

Unfortunately good intentions are not good enough.  When it comes to the Kingdom of God, a good citizen must have more than good intentions.  A good citizen must be in constant communication with God to determine the immediate will of God for each unique life situation. You can’t do the right thing if you aren’t listening to what God has to say.  You can’t really follow Jesus if you don’t accept what he has to say. Talk is cheap and rules are easy.  True relationship is hard and requires work, not just symbolic gestures and statements of intent.  It requires a good attitude.  And an open mind.  And love.  True relationship requires a lot of love.  Jesus tells us that love and kindness are what God is really looking for.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 182: Matthew 21:24-25, 27

 

I will ask you just one question, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you what right I have to do these things. Where did John’s right to baptize come from: was it from God or from human beings?….Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.

Jesus makes his dramatic entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, goes to the Temple and turns over the tables of the moneychangers, heals the blind and the crippled, defends the children, and then returns to the Temple where he teaches his unorthodox theology and interpretation of the scriptures.

The chief priests and the elders were very unhappy with him.  It says they came to him and asked, “What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you such right?”  Jesus responds with this: “I will ask you just one question, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you what right I have to do these things.  Where did John’s right to baptize come from: was it from God or from human beings?”

Jesus asks the religious authorities a trick question and they don’t know how to respond.  The problem was that there were many followers of John the Baptist among the hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for Passover, and their memory of his brutal execution by the Jewish king was still a fresh wound.  The mere mention of his name probably stirred up a lot of anger.  So when Jesus mentions John the Baptist, it’s a delicate situation because the last thing the religious authorities wanted to do was start a riot that would certainly cause casualties and rouse up the Roman army.  The last thing they wanted during Passover was trouble, and Jesus knew it.

The Bible says they started to argue among themselves –  “What shall we say? If we answer, ‘From God,’ he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe John?’  But if we say, ‘From human beings,’ we are afraid of what the people might do, because they are all convinced that John was a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”  And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.”

It was a very clever reply, but then Jesus was a master at verbal sparring.  He had long been honing his debating skills with the Pharisees out in the countryside, and he was more than up to the challenge of a little repartee with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.         

The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was the 1988 Vice Presidential debate where Lloyd Bentsen was debating Dan Quayle.  At one point Senator Quayle was asked to defend his vice-presidential credentials, and he replied that he had as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he ran for president.  Bentsen responded with one of the all-time great zingers:  “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

According to Wikipedia, “since then, the words ‘You’re no Jack Kennedy,’ or some variation on Bentsen’s remark, have become a part of the political lexicon as a way to deflate politicians or other individuals perceived as thinking too highly of themselves.”

I also remember hearing about an incident with Matahma Gandhi, the great Hindu political activist who led a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that eventually secured India’s independence from Britain. British rule in India is claimed by some to be responsible for famines that resulted in the deaths of millions of Indians, and Gandhi himself was imprisoned by authorities on many occasions for the sake of others.  When visiting England in 1931 he was swarmed by reporters, one of whom asked him, “What do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” Snap.

Here are some other great one-liners:

  • If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and his impersonators would be dead (Johnny Carson).
  • If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning (Catherine the Great).
  • If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman (Margaret Thatcher).
  • I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I’m not dumb, and also I’m not blonde (Dolly Parton).

Usually a good retort, a really good zinger, is something that is said in response to a stupid question or remark.  That is certainly the case with today’s scripture.   The religious leaders ask Jesus who gives him the right to do what he does.  It’s a stupid question.  Who gives any of us the right to do anything that we do?  We do what we do because we are who we are.  We do what we do because we have to be true to ourselves.  We do what we do because we perceive that what we are doing is the best course of action.

What I want to know is who gave those religious authorities the right to question Jesus about what he was doing?  What was wrong with coming into Jerusalem on a donkey?  Or calling attention to the inappropriate commerce going on in the Temple?  Or healing people?  Or defending little children?  Or interpreting the scriptures?  Who gives anyone the right to ask people to defend their actions when what they are doing isn’t hurting anyone?

But Jesus comes up with a much better retort to the chief priests’ stupid question,  It’s a brilliant comeback.  He doesn’t defend himself, he instead brings up the ministry (and thus the martyrdom) of his friend John the Baptist.  He replies with an innuendo about how the Jewish religious leaders’ failure to embrace John as a true prophet and protect him from their crazy king.  Ultimately Jesus defends himself well, because he’s clever and witty and articulate and wise.  He’s not some passive, aloof, detached, other-worldly being who goes around patting everyone on the head while he spews out platitudes with an angelic smile on his face.  In this scriptures the powerful religious leaders are left standing there looking like fools because when it comes to verbal sparring, Jesus is the master.  He never, ever loses an argument, and he always gets the last word.  Snap.

What does this scripture say to you?