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Matthew 21_33-46

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TITLE:  Jesus Didn't Call Us to Gloat                 SCRIPTURE:  Matthew 21:33-46

Accountability is not a popular word these days.  I'm not sure it ever was.  Accountability suggests that there is a standard that we need to meet.  Accountability suggests that someone will judge us OK or Not OK. Accountability makes us nervous, because we fear that we might be found to be Not OK.

But life can turn treacherous when we become too casual about accountability.  A few years ago, the Savings and Loan scandal cost American taxpayers $160 billion dollars -- that's billion with a B.  Nobody could figure out whom to hold accountable.  Was it bankers?  Was it politicians?  Was it economists?  Nobody seemed to know.  Mort Zuckerman, writing in U.S. News & World Report, commented:

     In Washington, the notion seems to be that if a scandal is big enough,

the people will not understand, and if it involves enough politicians in both parties, there is no scandal at all.  In other words, EVERYBODY will be blamed, so NOBODY will be blamed.  This is intolerable….  We must find out who stole our future.

And now we are in the middle of another crisis -- a mortgage crisis that has mortgaged our future.  Who should we hold accountable?  Nobody seems to know.  Our children will pay the price for somebody's malfeasance, but whose?  There are so many culprits that nobody is likely to be held accountable.  It's a shame!  It ought to be a crime!

Accountability means that the guilty pay the price for their actions.  Without accountability, the innocent pay. 

Our text today is, in part, about accountability.  Jesus had just incurred the wrath of the religious leaders by overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.  The priests questioned his authority, and Jesus responded with a series of parables.  Our Gospel reading today is one of those parables. 

In the parable, a landowner planted a vineyard. He then proceeded to spend freely to make it a really first-class vineyard.  He enclosed the vineyard with a fence.  He dug a wine press so that he would be ready for the first harvest -- a harvest that wouldn't appear for at least four years.  He built a watchtower so guards could keep an eye out for thieves.  Then he leased the vineyard to tenants and went away.

Later, the landowner sent servants to see how things were going, but the tenants beat up the servants -- even killed one of them. 

So the landowner sent his son, thinking that the tenants would surely honor his son.  But the tenants, thinking that they could intimidate the landowner and take over the vineyard, killed the son.

This is a thinly veiled parable.  It is a parable about God covenanting with Israel -- making a great nation of them -- leading them into the Promised Land -- sending prophets to lead them (but they killed the prophets) -- and then sending his Son Jesus.  The priests hadn't killed Jesus yet, but Jesus knew that they soon would.

So Jesus asked the priests:

     "Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"

The priests answered:

"He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

So Jesus responded:

"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."

Hearing that, the priests wanted to arrest Jesus, but they were afraid, because Jesus was popular with the people.

So what does this parable have to do with us?  Why would we read this first-century parable in our twenty-first century worship?  Why should we care about a parable about things that happened so long ago?

But this isn't just a parable about things that happened long ago.  For one thing, this parable explains something.  It explains why God raised up the church -- the new people of God -- and gave the church the franchise that had for so many centuries belonged to Israel -- the old people of God.  Jesus told the priests:

     "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."

But we should be careful, lest this parable lead us to despise the Jewish people and grow smug about our own spiritual inheritance.  That was Israel's problem.  They despised the rest of the world -- the Gentile world -- and grew smug about their spiritual inheritance.  One of the lessons of this parable is that nobody owns God.  We are all tenant farmers, so to speak.  We are all reliant on God's generosity.  None of us has cause for spiritual pride.

I said that this parable is, in part, about accountability.  It is also about spiritual pride.  Spiritual pride comes in lots of forms.  Like cancer cells, spiritual pride has the ability to morph and move and pop up in unexpected places.

The church is a source of spiritual pride for lots of people.  Jesus loves all people and came to save all people, but we are tempted to think that because we are United Methodists, we're better than the rest.  We think that we're better than Nazarenes or Lutherans, and we're sure that we're better than Catholics and Baptists.  We're better than Pentecostals, and we're certainly better than Muslims and Buddhists.

But Jesus didn't call us to look down our noses at people.  He called us to love them.

Spiritual pride pops out in other places as well -- usually in places where we're strong.  We figure that we're better than people of other nations -- the ones who can't quite get it together.  We're better than the homeless people who shuffle along our streets.  We're better than the high school kids who go off to a corner of the schoolyard to smoke cigarettes.  We're smarter than people who build their houses on barrier islands -- didn't Jesus say something about building your house on sand!  We're better, better, better!

But Jesus didn't call us to gloat.  He called us to love.

And he called us TO BEAR FRUIT.  That's one of the major emphases of Jesus' parable today. 

The New Testament was written originally in Greek.  The Greek word for fruit is karpos.  Karpos appears four times in this parable (v. 34 twice and vv. 41, 43).  English-language Bibles sometimes translate karpos as "produce," but a better word is "fruit" -- because in Matthew's Gospel, karpos has to do with the fruits of our lives -- our spiritual fruits. 

The bible scholar, Fred Craddock, says that Jesus wants us to produce three kinds of spiritual fruits (Craddock, 467):

     - The first is righteous lives.

     - The second is human caring.

     - The third is courageous witnessing.

Let me flesh that out a little bit: 

- First, Jesus wants us to live righteously -- to live Godly lives.  Among other things, that means not getting caught up in sexual immorality or drunkenness or other kinds of immoral behavior.  It means that showing respect for other people -- and for the environment. 

- Second, Jesus wants us to care about other people -- to help people in need -- to love others as God has loved us -- to be generous with others as God has been generous to us. 

- Third, Jesus wants us to witness courageously -- to invite people to church -- to help other people to come to faith in Christ.  Jesus means for us to be public Christians.  That will usually require some sort of public service in our local church -- teaching Sunday school or serving on a committee or singing in the choir -- some sort of service that is designed to grow the kingdom of God. 

Witnessing courageously also means helping our children to grow up as people of faith.  We don't do that very well.  Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki made this observation.  She said:

We teach our children the things of God one hour a week; seldom do we require homework or accountability for what is learned. If we taught mathematics or reading in the same way that we teach religion, parents would rise in a furor, demanding change. But seldom do parents protest that education in Christianity is not rigorous enough; knowing little themselves, they require little of their children. We parents need to take responsibility for the faith education of our children.  We need to pray with them at the dinner table.  We need to pray with them at bedtime.  We need to get books of children's bible stories and read those stories to them.  We need to insure that they are in Sunday school and youth group.  We need to be as concerned for their faith education as we are about their secular education. 

Jesus wants us to bear spiritual fruits:

     - Righteous lives.

     - Human caring.

     - And courageous witnessing.

That's what God wanted the Israelites to do too -- but they often failed to bear spiritual fruit.  And so Jesus told the priests and Pharisees:

     "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."

That was his judgment on those people.  Let us live in such a way that it doesn't become his judgment on us as well.

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