Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Freedom Plow

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. (Matthew 21.43)

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.14)

Eyes on the Prize

A first look at Sunday’s readings put me a loss as to what the Lectionary organizers were up to. Each of the four passages is famous. How they fit together wasn’t immediately clear, however. The Old Testament text (Exodus 20) issues The Ten Commandments. Psalm 19 extols the wisdom of keeping God’s laws; the psalmist writes, “More to be desired are they than gold.” (v10) The New Testament selection (Philippians 3.4-14) contains Paul’s moving admission about never being content in his faith; “I press on,” he says. The Gospel (Matthew 21.33-46) renders another vineyard parable—the third in as many weeks—this one replete with ominous overtones, as Jesus tells of tenant farmers who beat and murder everyone the owner sends to collect the rent, including his son.

While the Exodus-Psalm connection is too obvious to miss, the through-line that ties all four readings together is by no means apparent. The linkage between Philippians and Matthew seems tenuous at best. Both Paul and Jesus allude to their final acts. Yet what Paul envisions as a prize, Jesus foresees as criminal injustice. And what either has to do with honoring God’s laws is anyone’s guess.

With Paul contributing the biggest chunk of inspiration, I considered settling there. “Nothing I’ve done compares to knowing Christ,” he says, adding he longs to know Christ more—to identify with Christ’s suffering so he can experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. He concludes with his great declaration: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it on my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

American slaves immortalized Paul’s legendary “eyes on the prize” passage in a powerful spiritual that Mavis Staples recorded a century later at the height of the civil rights movement.

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Got my hand on the freedom plow

Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The instant the melody wafted through my memory, the pieces fell into place.

Failure to Produce

The villains in Jesus’s story overstep their authority by confusing occupancy with ownership. Not only does their abominable behavior violate civil law. It flouts God’s edicts forbidding thievery, coveting, and homicide. By refusing to pay the rent, whatever they profit isn’t rightfully theirs; they trade in stolen goods. Coveting the owner’s property and status, they mug and murder his agents, who serve as physical reminders the tenants aren’t as high and mighty as they pretend. (When the son calls for the rent, Jesus says their scheme includes usurping his inheritance after they kill him!) The upshot of this heinous tale doesn’t get by its target—the Pharisees. They’re greatly annoyed with Jesus as it is. Since He arrived in Jerusalem for Passover, He’s irritated them at every turn, blatantly taunting them to take action against Him. Portraying them as wicked tenants tacitly charges them with breaking the whole of the Law. In addition to crimes mentioned above, they refute God’s sovereignty, idolize power, renounce holiness, dishonor parents, lie, and commit the spiritual equivalent of adultery by luring God’s people into disgrace to satisfy their egomaniacal lusts. The parable pushes the Pharisees over the edge. Matthew says they react by validating Jesus’s inflammatory depiction of their wickedness: they conspire to kill Him. He has to be got rid of so they can continue running the vineyard as if it’s theirs.

Even as He provokes them to retaliate, Jesus explicitly warns they’ll be their own undoing. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” He says. (Matthew 21.43) Failure to produce a worthy harvest will end in eviction. The vineyard’s sole Proprietor won’t hesitate to replace them with tenants who will gratefully, humbly, and faithfully earn their keep. They’ll rein in carnal cravings for power and do the hard work of God’s kingdom. They’ll bear good fruit that pleases God and nurtures God’s people. They’ll honor God’s laws. And, like Paul, they’ll dismiss any credit they may receive to avoid getting bogged down in self. They’ll keep their eyes on the prize and press on.

More of Ourselves

We can erect elaborate hierarchies in our faith communities, bestow impressive titles on our leaders, hang fancy names suggesting we’re in charge on our doors, and dispense with anyone God sends to call us to account—including God’s Son. But nothing can change the fact it’s God’s vineyard and we’re merely tenants. On the other hand, we can humble ourselves to serve God’s purpose and abide by God’s edicts. We can enter the vineyard, intent on working faithfully, seeking no praise for ourselves, pressing ahead with our eyes fixed on the prize. Instead of wielding self-aggrandizing weapons that wound and destroy, we can weld our hands to the freedom plow, uprooting injustice and oppression, nurturing liberty and dignity that every child of God deserves. Until all of us are free, loved, and accepted, none of us is. Our work isn’t finished until the entire vineyard is harvested.

Like the wicked tenants, the religious establishment of Jesus’s day goes too far. Sadly, many in our time do the same. Yet the texts also challenge those of us who abhor religious excess and abuse to demand more of ourselves than we’re presently offering. We can’t exploit fear of going too far to excuse not going far enough. In Luke 9.62, Jesus puts it like this: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Forget what you’ve seen wicked tenants do. Forget what you have or haven’t done. Put your hand to the freedom plow, keep your eyes on the prize, and press on.

Search our hearts, O God. Free our minds. If need be, put us in our place. Make us faithful tenants committed to produce fruit worthy of Your kingdom. Amen.

As worthy tenants of God's vineyard we fix our eyes on the prize and plow ahead until all of God's children are free, loved, and accepted.


genevieve said...

Tim, when I read the last paragraph, it implored to me that we must continuing going on despite all the hurts and disappointments we may have expereinced in life. This is where real service can and does have an impact. When others see that we are willing to endure much suffering for what is right and just, then we are impacting does around us.

In my experience, Kind deeds to others return to us in due time. I never look for them but they always seem to come in God's own time.

claire said...

I would expect very few of us know whether we are producing fruit or not...
This year I have come to look at the bad tenants as those parts of me that lead me away from Jesus -- there is so much in the world out there, or out here, to grab my attention. So often my own thoughts seem more entertaining than just keeping my mind on Jesus for a while.
I agree with you that we are worthy tenants and I do believe all of God's children are already free, loved, and accepted. It is just that either we forget it or we find it difficult to accept :-)

Tim said...

Genevieve and Claire, first I must tell both of you that opening the comments to find you both felt like stepping into a garden to discover two bright and lovely blooms. My heart danced and chastened me for allowing time challenges to keep me too long from both of your gardens. I will be coming by very soon to see what you're both growing--knowing it will be fresh and exciting!

Yes, Gen, I agree: perseverance and commitment are vital to reaping the full goodness that comes from working in God's vineyard. We can't plow ahead freely if we persist in dragging past hurts and disappointments with us. They will inevitably influence the spirit and extent of our efforts. Christ's promise of abundant life carries with it the unspoken expectation we'll make room to receive it. To take hold of the plow we must loose our grip on anything that weighs us down. Then we're free to do the hard work of the kingdom--and have ample room to accept the goodness that returns to us in due time. This is precisely what Paul means in Galatians 6.9: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

And Claire I love how your comment dovetails so beautifully with Gen's. Much of the time--indeed, most of it--we don't know whether we're producing, because the harvest is never evident until it's ripe. By the time one season ends, our focus has already shifted to the next; the goodness we yield arrives at a moment when we're already thinking about how much more we have yet to do. Our pastor made of point of this in her sermon on the parable. As you no doubt know all too well, vineyards don't spring up overnight. The vines take years to mature. Meanwhile, we spend the interim planting new ones so that even when the earlier vines begin to produce we're also cultivating those that need more time to grow.

I do so like how you see the parable as a metaphor for internal conflict--and wholeheartedly agree we all struggle with bad tenants who'd rather follow their own minds than seek the mind of Christ.

An old friend of mine calls this "Wretched Apostle Syndrome," after Paul's confession in Romans 7.23-24: "I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

Our physical nature--already polarized by survival instincts and self-defeating pleasure--fights with our beings' desire to follow Christ. If possible, it will persuade us we will never meet discipleship's standards. And so often the delayed gratification that comes with kingdom work (in ourselves as well as for others) appears to back this up. But the beauty of not knowing whether or not we're producing is revealed by making us completely reliant on faith that God will bring to fruition the work begun in us. Thus we pray Psalm 90.17: "May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us--yes, establish the work of our hands."

My, you two have sent my mind reeling! One final thought. Claire, your final comment about difficulty accepting the freedom, love, and acceptance God gives all of us hits the nail on the head. Though our bad tenants would insist otherwise, they are ours for the taking and giving!

Blessings to both of you, with much gratitude for your inspiring and candid thoughts.