Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Coming Into the Kingdom

Philippians 3:4-13 and Matthew 21:33-46

 Our Matthew text this morning picks up right where last Sunday’s Gospel ended.  Jesus is in Jerusalem during the last week of his earthy life.  He has already cleared the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple, and the religious and civil elites, the chief priests and elders, are not very happy with him.  

 I think the point Jesus is trying to make is that these guys presume they own the Kingdom of God.  If he were to come out and say that, they would of course deny it.  So Jesus says it in a parable.

 It begins with a wealthy landowner.  This was pretty common in many rural areas in the first century AD.  Most of the farm land was owned by a few wealthy landlords.  It had been passed down through the generations to them.  Often they didn’t even live on the land.  They lived far away in cities, so they really didn’t have much contact with the tenant farmers who cultivated the land for them.  They enjoyed a life of ease off of the labor of others.  

 The tenant farmers would plant and harvest the land in exchange for a share of the crop.  Often, it was a percentage, at least 25%.  Or it might be a pre-set amount of the produce.  Both situations could be disastrous for the tenants if there was a drought or flood or locusts or whatever.  

 In this case, the land is used for a vineyard.  That tells us something important about this story; it’s about Israel.  In Isaiah 5, God compared Israel to a vineyard.  

  At harvest time, the landowner sent servants, who represent the prophets, to collect what is due him.  The tenant farmers, who represent the civil and religious leadership of Israel, refuse to pay what they owe.  Instead, they abuse the servants of the owner, symbolic of the way Israel often abused the prophets of God.  Now in this relationship, all the power belonged to the landowner.  The laws favored him, not the tenants.  I know, I know, surprise:  The laws favored the wealthy and powerful.  But here, the tenants presume to think they have the power.  

 So the owner sends his son.  This time, the tenants say to each other, “If we kill him, then we can take the estate for ourselves.”  They presume ownership of the land.  They are only stewards, taking care of what belongs to another, just as the leaders of Israel were stewards, taking care of the nation that belonged to God.  

 There were a few stories from the ancient world of benevolent landowners who gave all or some of their land to their tenants when they died.  But typically, those were landowners who had no heirs.  Obviously, the landowner would not give the estate to the people who killed his heir!  

 Jesus asks the religious elites, “What will God do to those tenants?”  They might know Jesus is telling this story against them, but they still answer honestly, “He will put them to death and give the vineyard to others.”  Jesus gets them to pronounce judgment on themselves, just as the prophet Nathan did with King David after his affair with Bathsheeba and the murder of her husband.  

 There was nothing new about this threat.  God warned Israel from the very beginning that if they rebelled against him, another nation would take their place.  In the story of the Exodus, God told Moses twice that he would disown Israel and make a new nation.  But Moses asked God to forgive them, and God relented.

 Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:  “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Jesus is the stone.  He is rejected by the elites, and so he becomes the cornerstone, the foundation, of a new building, which is the Church.  “The Kingdom will be taken from you and given to others who will bear the right fruit.”  

 I think it’s important to say that these verses, and others like them, have been used at times in the history of the Church to excuse anti-Semitism, which is wrong.  I think it’s also important to remember that the Hebrew people did not do any worse of a job at being the covenant people than any other nation would have done.  

 Jesus is a cornerstone to those who build on him.  And he was also a stumbling block to others.  At the end, he will be a stone that crushes those who reject him.  The question is, “What we do with Jesus?”  Do we build on him?  Do we look to him as the foundation for our lives?  Or do we stumble over him?  Do we find something he said or did too difficult and reject him for it?  

 Twenty-some years later, Paul was dealing with the Judaizers in the early Church in Philippians 3.  The Judaizers were those who argued that faith in Christ was not enough.  Something else had to be added to it in order to be saved.  A person had to become obedient to their teaching as well.  They required Gentiles who wanted to come into the Church to become Jews first, in order to become Christians second.  They especially held fast to circumcision as a requirement for entering God’s Kingdom.  

 In this passage, Paul beats them at their own game.  But he only beats them at their own game to show that it was really the wrong game.  It’s not that he lacked their qualifications; it’s that he found their qualifications lacking.  

 “If anyone could have faith in their own qualifications, it’s me,” he says.  “Circumcised on the 8th day.”  That tells us Paul was born Jewish. He was not a convert or proselyte who came in later.  In Jewish circles, converts from the Gentiles were always seen as a less than other Jews.

 “A pure blooded citizen of Israel.”  Most Jews could not claim pure bloodlines.  In the six centuries since the Exile, most families had at least some inter-marriage with non-Hebrews.  But those who could trace their family lineage back to “pure” roots were quite proud of it. 

 “From the tribe of Benjamin.”  The tribe of Benjamin was one of only two tribes that stayed loyal to King David’s descendants after the death of Solomon.  Those southern tribes, called Judah, had a better record of faithfulness than the ten northern tribes.  Not great, just better.

 “A real Hebrew if there ever was one.  And a member of the Pharisees.”  We rag on the Pharisees when we read the Gospels, but there’s no doubt that they were devoted.  They may not have been devoted to the right things, but they were devoted.  

 The fact Paul was a Pharisee also tells us that he lived at least part of his life in Judea, since that was the only place where the Pharisees existed.  They couldn’t keep up their level of devotion to the Law if they lived too far from Jerusalem.  We also know Paul was a student of a rabbi named Gamaliel, who taught in Jerusalem.  Living in Judea was also a “leg up” in Jewish circles.  The mystery, of course, is when did Paul live in Judea?  We know he was “from Tarsus.”  And we also know he never met Jesus until after the resurrection.  So it would seem he was not in Judea at the time of Jesus’ ministry.  But that’s just a question of history, not really important here.  

 Paul goes on, “I was so zealous I persecuted the Church.”  Zeal, in Hebrew thought, was often thought of in terms of being so devoted as to be willing to do violence to the “enemies of God.”  Such was the extent of Paul’s devotion to the Pharisees and their way of thinking.

 “I was never accused of a fault.”  That’s a very Pharisaical statement.

 “I once considered these things to be beyond value.  Now I consider them to be worthless, garbage.”  The word “garbage” might best be translated as “dung.”  Paul once thought these things were to his credit, but now he realizes they were actually to his detriment because they kept him from knowing Jesus.  

 The only way to enter into the Kingdom of God is by knowing Jesus.  We must know him as Lord and Savior.  We must trust him to save us, and we must yield our lives to him as Lord.  We need to have an intimate relationship of trust and submission to him to enter into God’s Kingdom.  

 We have to discard everything else to know Christ.  Now I don’t think that we should read that verse literally. It’s not that we have to throw away everything else:  Family, work, education, belongings.  But if any of those things are more important to us than Christ, just like Paul’s heritage and religious accomplishments had once been more important to him, then we need to take those things off the top shelf and move them down to make room for Jesus.  Nothing should take prominence in our lives over Jesus.  

 The religious elites in Jerusalem presumed they owned God’s Kingdom.  Only God owns God’s Kingdom.  Paul once thought the way into the Kingdom was by one’s own heritage and efforts, as the Judaizers continued to teach.  But only through faith in Christ can we enter into God’s Kingdom.  

 What do we look to for our right standing with God?  Our birth?  Our church affiliation?  Our good behavior?  Our religious accomplishments?  Having the right opinions?  A decision we made a long time ago but really haven’t kept up with?

 None of them can make us right with God.  Only knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior can make us right with God and bring us into his Kingdom.

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