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.