Sunday, September 28, 2008
Matthew 21: 28-46
Philippians 2: 1-13
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, the first thing he did was cleanse the temple of the unethical moneychangers. Then, he curses the fig tree, and his authority is questioned by the Pharisees. There are also a large number of parables that Jesus teaches, and Matthew places our two stories today in that week in Jerusalem.
It’s important to know the context, because Jesus is in the midst of illustrating why God is so displeased with the way things are going religiously in Jerusalem. It’s a contrast—the Pharisees and the Scribes act that way, and in the Kingdom of God, the proper way to act is this way. These two stories are given to us by Jesus as part of that teaching.
Let’s talk about the first story. There are two sons. Their father asks both of them to go work in the vineyard. They both do the opposite of what they say. The first says no, but then goes, after he thinks about it. The second says yes, but never seems to get there. And he asks, which is the one who did what he was supposed to? The answer, of course, is the second.
This story answers the question of why those who are the outcast and the sinners of the world seemed to be getting preferential treatment from Jesus and his disciples. Many of us will say to God that we will do what he wants, but then we seem to get distracted with other things. The ones who do the will of God can even include those who outwardly reject God, but show his love through their actions anyway. They are closer to the kingdom than the first.
The second story is the story of the wicked tenants. There’s an absentee owner who leaves a vineyard in the management of some tenants. The tenants get an overdeveloped sense of ownership and kill the slaves the owner sends to collect the proceeds from the harvest. He sends more, they kill them, too. He sends his son, and they, not having the tightest grip on reality, kill him too, so they can inherit his wealth. Jesus asks what happens to them? The people respond that the tenants should be killed for misusing the owners land and killing his people, and his son. The tenants should then be replaced by new ones who understand their role, and seek the owners’ will.
This is actually a fascinating story for Jesus to be telling, because the tenants are the scribes and Pharisees, the slaves sent to “collect” are the prophets of God, and the son is Jesus himself. And the tenants kill everyone. They no longer, according to Jesus, deserve the right to manage the Kingdom of God, because they have taken their tenancy and grown it in their minds into ownership, and used the vineyard wrong.
There are lessons for us here, people who can be described, and indeed describe ourselves as workers in the vineyard. We claim that we are the people of God. We are his workers. How do we avoid the fate the the original tenants of the vineyard deserve? How do we keep from killing the ones sent by the owner?
If we accept that we are not the masters of our own fates, that when we became Christian we ceased to accept the illusion of power over our lives, then what is left for us is to seek the will of God, whom we at some point trusted, otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning.
Here is what Jesus tells us—when we realize that we have gone against the will of God, we change direction. Even when we say no, we can turn around and say yes. From the parable of the workers in the vineyard, we know that we can do that at any point and we will receive the normal full daily wage. Grace is available to those who say no and then choose to go work.
We are merely tenants on someone else’s farm. We work for someone else. It’s best if we don’t abuse those who are sent to help us.
Paul says it better than I can—“be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
And here’s the kicker: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
In other words, imitate Christ.
Of course this doesn’t mean that you should grow a beard, wear a robe and sandals, and make the local government so mad that they want to crucify you.
Rather, this means that, no matter how you dress, or the length of your hair, you have it within you to act as Jesus would have acted. And we’re talking more than being nice. To borrow and slightly alter a phrase from CS Lewis, Jesus was not nice, but he was good.
It’s to act as if the person you meet is a child of God, and when disagreements happen, to act honorably and with integrity, acknowledging the humanity of the other person. Disagreements are not the same as attacks on a person’s character.
It’s deeper than WWJD. It’s more complex than a bumper sticker. It is seeking, as the Philippians passage continues, to empty ourselves, taking the form of a servant. It means humbling ourselves and becoming obedient. And sometimes, all the way to the danger of losing your life. Let’s be clear here—being a true Christian is not having a death wish. Most of us here will never be called into a situation where our lives are required of us. But to stand up for God and for his people, to stand between his people, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, to speak up to the powers of this world can sometimes put you into situations that are a little dicey.
When our integrity comes from God, and not ourselves, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love. When we act from thinking of ourselves merely as a servant of God and not out of some cultural notion of solitary self-reliance, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. When we have emptied ourselves, and act not out of ego or stubbornness but out of love of God and the need to serve Him, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.