The growing rift (Matthew 21:33-46)

Let’s return to the parable we introduced yesterday (and in Sunday’s message):

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

Indeed, we have a spirit of hostility toward religion in today’s climate.  Sure, it’s ok to have some religious beliefs.  Just keep them out of the office, the classroom, or—if you’re Tim Tebow—off the football field.  In the 1990’s, James Davidson Hunter of the University of Virginia identified a rift between what he called “the impulse toward orthodoxy” and “the impulse toward progressivism.”  In other words, what we’re facing is a rift between those who are conservative and those who are progressive—so much so that it’s become increasingly delicate to discuss such matters at all.  Hunter writes:

“But in the end, whether concerned with abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights, day care, or any other major moral or political issue of the day, the tools of logic and the evidence from science, history, and theology can do nothing to alter the opinions of their opposition.  Because each side interprets them differently, logic, history, and theology can only serve to enhance and legitimate particular ideological interests.  The willingness or unwillingness of opposing groups to have a ‘dialogue’ about their differences is largely irrelevant.  Even a spirit of compromise maintained by either side would be irrelevant.  In the final analysis, each side of the cultural divide can only talk past the other.” (James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, p. 130-1)

Hunter wrote these words in 1990—roughly 25 years ago.  Do you find them to be true today?  What have been some areas where it’s been challenging to speak on matters of faith and morality?

What it ultimately comes down to is how you see the relationship between faith and culture.  Do you see faith as shaping culture?  If so, you may be frustrated that our culture’s views don’t bend more readily to the character of God.  Or, do you see culture as shaping faith?  If so, you may be frustrated that conservatives are trying to use a 2,000 year old religious book to dictate society’s moral decisions.

But if we look at the parable again, we see something unique.  The Master’s servants –analogous to God’s prophets of the Old Testament—could be rejected, but there was something unique about the Master’s actual Son.  This, of course, refers to Jesus.

Every one of us is free to doubt the word of God.  Given the Bible’s peculiarities, you would hardly be alone in your doubts.  But even if you are skeptical of the words of the text, you remain confronted by the Word made flesh.  I can’t dispel your doubts about the Bible in a single blog post—nor will I try.  But the person of Jesus—who embodies God’s story—continually challenges our every assumption regarding faith and the world we inhabit.

If we follow his example, we will find ourselves pressed deeper into a hostile world.  We follow after a Savior who was despised and rejected by the very people he came to save.  His story becomes our own.  But what motivates us toward faithfulness and dialogue is not a desire to “change culture,” nor a desire to accommodate our message to our culture’s value system.  What motivates us instead is love—a love that prompts us toward moral purity and relational proximity in the same breath.

 

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Response to the Kingdom

If ever there was an era of compromise and genuine tolerance, that age is long gone.  In a post-Christian world, we’re left with something of a rift between the religious conservative and the socially progressive—a rift that seems increasingly unbridgeable in an era of tribal politics and sound bites.

In such a world, it nearly goes without saying that the message of God’s kingdom becomes lost in a sea of confusion and concern over manmade empires.  As such, we can expect that reactions to the gospel can be just as polarized as the rest of contemporary society.

Toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus began to teach on what would happen in the future.  God would restore all of creation to perfection, though this would necessarily entail righteous judgment.  In several parables, Jesus tells of what this future might look like when man became more consumed with self-interest.

For our purposes, we might pull out two unique parables that highlight the extreme ways that we might respond to God’s kingdom:

 

RESPONSE ONE: HOSTILITY

Jesus tells a parable that essentially mirrors the story of the world:

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

You see the parallels?  Just as man once rejected God’s authority in Eden, so too does every man and woman reject God’s authority in exchange for a life of self-pleasure.

And because this is so deeply ingrained in each of us, the thought of anyone—or any religious system—imposing its morals on my life is utterly detestable.  As a result I respond to God’s kingdom with hostility—because I hate the idea of being placed under the control or authority of someone else.

 

RESPONSE TWO: APATHY

Jesus tells another story:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps[a]and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13)

Now, there are a variety of ways of interpreting this parable, some of which we’ll touch on in the coming week.  Jesus’ larger point, however, is that regardless of initial enthusiasm, there would be some whose faith would not sustain them until the end.

American Christianity seems—sadly—built for this.  Hear me: the greatest threat to Christianity today is not persecution.  It’s boredom.  We are too easily satisfied with a Savior who meets our felt needs rather than a Savior who pushes us to toward personal forgiveness and transformation through the cross.  We rarely bat an eye over this, because this way of thinking leads to strong initial commitments, and pledges about being “on fire for the Lord.”  Tragically, time reveals this initial fervor to be only that—a faith rooted no deeper than emotion and experience.  The fire eventually burns out, and what’s left is apathy and faithlessness.

SOLUTION

The parable of the ten virgins hints at something simple: there can be no substitute for a lifetime of devotion and discipleship.  Salvation begins with forgiveness for sin, but it expands into a life of joy-filled wonder at the rule and reign of God.

To live in God’s kingdom, then, demands that we not merely settle for looking for “middle ground” between these two above extremes.  No; it’s as C.S. Lewis so famously said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance.  The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”  The gospel presses us to make God’s kingdom our greatest priority, our greatest treasure, our deepest joy.  When we do this, it allows us not to be shaped by the city of man, but to serve it, always hoping in the city to come.