Two Kinds of Faith
Presented -October 5, 2014
(Ex. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Phil. 3:4b-14; Mt. 21:33-46)
There’s a book written over 60 years ago by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called Two Types of Faith that I first read long ago. I have almost pirated his title for this sermon. I want to acknowledge how much I have learned from him (and not only in this book), but I’ve changed the title so as not to suggest that he would have begun to agree with my conclusions, which are a bit different from his.
Through the years, I would say the vast majority of people I’ve attempted to teach Old Testament come into it from earlier studies (in Sunday School, or even sometimes in university) with the perspective that the Old Testament is the product of the Jews, who thought that the way to God’s heart, so to speak, was through keeping the rules and regulations of the law. It took Jesus to leave all that Jewish stuff behind, and show us that God is love. The Old Testament is law, the New Testament is Gospel. In a word: Nonsense!
No matter how many people tell you differently, Jesus was a Jew his entire life, and so were his disciples. The Old Testament does not teach that keeping the law, such as the Ten Commandments, actually “saved people. God is the one who saves people in both Testaments. Rather, it was that the laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments were really Ten Commitments or Ten Principles by which people who were already in a covenant relationship with God showed that they took that relationship seriously. And that’s the truth!
At the same time, the foolishness about the law being the way to God’s heart is an old mistake. We have reports in the New Testament (such as our gospel reading, and some other passages from the Apostle Paul) that at least some people in that day did think that a legalistic keeping of rules was what made the difference in one’s relationship with God. And, it seems, that even today there are at least two kinds of faith, or at least two approaches to it. One is based on externals and rule keeping to show we’re good enough, or an exact belief in certain doctrines to show we’re wise enough, and one is based on the internal condition of our hearts toward maintaining a relationship with God and others, imitating God’s vision for the world, as it issues in certain kinds of behaviours that are summed up in such things as the Ten Commandments and other words. And it certainly isn’t all Jewish folk on one side of this divide and all Christian folk on the other.
If you remember, last week’s Gospel lesson started with a few of the religious elite in Jesus’ day issuing a challenge to him to produce his credentials that verified his authority to teach the kinds of things he did. Now, also remember that, before they did this, Jesus had overturned the money changers’ tables and attacked the economics of religion. Jesus was generally being a pain to the establishment, and that has always made official ministry committees nervous, and still does. Rather than answering their question directly, Jesus responded by saying that it wasn’t those with all the external qualifications that were being swept up into the great work that God was doing called the kingdom or the sovereignty of God or heaven–shorthand for a new relationship with God. Really it was the “Tax Collectors and Prostitutes” (the outcasts) who had experienced a remaking of the way in which they lived life. These were the ones through whom the work of God was now being done. That was last week.
Today’s Gospel follows on that challenge to religious authority.
It is usually called the parable of the wicked farmers, and, like last week’s is placed in a vineyard. This parable is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke but with differences, which teach us to read the Gospels not as transcripts of Jesus’ ministry, but as the individual gospel writer’s remembrance of events in Jesus’ life in the light of the needs of those to whom they were presenting the story. Matthew’s version is the most difficult.
The story itself is based on a very old poem or song found in Isaiah 5 that is called the “Song of the Vineyard.” In that Song the Vineyard is Israel, and the wicked farmers are those who are false teachers of Israel. According to Isaiah, these will be swept away and replaced by better, more faithful servants of God, who will take seriously the kind of lifestyle that grows out of a covenant relationship with God and one another.
As Matthew uses this old poem, however, the old words are sung to a new tune or in a new key. The vineyard is now the Kingdom or sovereignty of God which will be taken away from those who think that godly life is all about bookkeeping and rule following. It will be taken away on the basis of what the wicked farmers have done to the messengers (the prophets of old, as in Isaiah), but most especially to the son of the vineyard owner, who is the one who is the rejected stone that has become the chief cornerstone of the kingdom. The kingdom will be taken from those who major on externals and given to those that “produce the fruits of the kingdom,” or who do what they see God doing rather than just talking about it.
Jesus was not one who had all the external “gold stars” that the religious bookkeepers of his day required of one through whom they thought God would or could work. Jesus did not have a high birth, Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee not Jerusalem, Jesus was not a graduate of a rabbinic academy, Jesus did not belong to a Jewish religious/political party. And there were other problems with him too. For some leaders, he associated with the wrong people too much, he talked with, you guessed it, tax collectors and prostitutes, and non-Jews and women. For others he did not talk enough about the need for armed insurrection against the Romans.
Much in the Gospel according to Matthew, was born out of tension between folk of different religious backgrounds in his congregation(s). The latest research I know of has concluded that the synagogue and the church had not split into two definite religions yet, but there were tensions among those different sorts of people within Matthew’s synagogues. There were those who saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and were Jewish in every way, those who saw him as Messiah, but were otherwise Greek in attitude and language, and those who were in between.
The point of all this is that, again the latest research has concluded that the tensions we find in the New Testament were not tensions between Jews and Christians, but among Jews of various sorts, some of which we might call Jewish-Christians.
Alas, it has been true that the church has often preached and taught otherwise. Many have frozen this passage in Matthew and many others in the New Testament in the first century as an example of how Christians have been badly treated by Jews. And, alas, it has also been true that, almost as soon as Christians ceased to be persecuted for their faith, they became the persecutors of others for theirs, and, in many parts of the church even today, this old teaching of Jew vs Christian in the New Testament has left an anti-Jewish bias among us–sometimes full blown into anti-Semitism. The bias worked itself into Christian writings and catechisms. We read of Jews persecuted as “Christ-killers” and worse–an attitude that bore its most bitter fruit in the Holocaust of World War II. It is pitiable that, even now, when many Jews think of Christians it is of Auschwitz and Buchenwald that they think. And having walked with many devout Jewish folk through the years and listened, we need to be careful about trying to wash our hands too quickly. It is sad to see that there are groups who even deny that the holocaust took place.
To remember this text for today, we must remember that those to whom the kingdom of God are given are responsible for living lives that produce fruit, not that insist that they are the fruit inspectors for everyone else’s life. People are accountable to God, not for faith in externalities as the way to God, but for a faith that begins by allowing ourselves to be remade in the image of Christ which, in turn, leads to new life. We are all accountable.
This text does not condemn the Jews as a group, and condemns some Jewish leaders only in a historical sense. In a broader sense, those who have the “sovereignty” or “kingdom” removed from them are those who think that faith is about externals and rules. The leadership of God’s community, which is what the kingdom of God means in this text belongs to those who have decided it’s more important to live out the great commandments of loving God absolutely and our neighbours as ourselves in real world. It is removed from those who think that faith is found by being good enough judged by external rules, principles, and doctrines. I would also suggest that God removes some from leadership of the people of God not out of anger, but because rule-keeping and purity gets to be a full time job. Worrying about keeping an institution leaves no time to do what God intends the people of God to do. An important text that now stands close to the beginning of the Bible, way back at the call of Abram in Genesis chapter 12, explains that God intends “That in you (the heirs of Abraham) all the families of the earth will find blessing.” If our time is consumed by the search for purity and rule keeping, there’s not much energy left for helping others find blessing, which is quite often messy and dirty business.
It is a sobering thought to consider what God thinks about churches today. Is it even conceivable that there are those who have become very like those from whom the kingdom was taken in this parable because they’re so busy with themselves and keeping pure and not dealing with those who have different views, religious and otherwise, that they have no time for being vehicles for allowing all the families of the earth to find God’s blessing. And note that the text does not say we give them our blessing and call it God’s. We are called to be helpers in God’s work of bringing blessing. Is it conceivable that God is, even now, assigning the divine work to today’s tax collectors and prostitutes, the outcasts of our society?
Let me conclude with Paul’s point in Philippians 3 to show us a way forward. In essence, he said that, although he had many of these so-called “gold stars” to paste on the outside of his religious life, that he considered all of them as so much garbage. His true desire was to become bold enough to be like Jesus in his death. What he probably meant was that he wanted the courage to live a life of service for others, to lose his life that he might save it. Paul said, “I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.” He did all he could to grasp what it meant to become like God, who in Jesus has already grasped a-hold of him. A man of Paul’s background would be sure to count on the importance of tradition for his direction in life. At the same time, he didn’t want to be trapped by making “how it’s always been” a limitation on vision, and a reason for not exploring new territory, being careful not to lose ground in the exuberance for the new just for the sake of the new. He called for balance.
I join Paul in a challenge, as we gather round the table of the Lord to make Jesus’ love real today, it is this: “I (we) press toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” And, “Let those who are mature be of the same mind.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Sermon created by Rev. Dr. Timothy Ashley