The Acts of the Apostles and Evangelism

The Gospel lessons for the Post-Paschal Sundays are wonderfully rich and deep and give us a treasury of inspired ideas to contemplate.  The “other” readings we do each Sunday,  called the Apostolos or reading from the Apostles (which we frequently refer to as the Epistle reading) is also Scripture, the Word of God and so essential to our understanding God’s own revelation.  We might get the idea that since the Gospel lessons give name to each of the Post-Paschal Sundays (for example, the 5th Sunday of Pascha is called The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman), that the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is somehow of secondary importance, but not so!   “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”   (2 Timothy 3:16).

Acts 11:19-30 begins by noting that the first Christians concentrated their evangelistic efforts exclusively on their fellow Jews even after Stephen’s death at the hands of the Jews.  Being persecuted by their fellow Jews did not detour them from trying to convince the Jews that Jesus is Lord, God and Messiah.  However, some of these early Christians, fleeing  the persecution that began in earnest after the martyrdom of Stephen, went to the city of Antioch starting a successful mission to the Gentiles.  It is in Antioch that the name “Christian” is bestowed on those who believe Jesus is Messiah. The Antiochian Christians are direct descendants of this original mission work of the early Church.  The Antiochian mission is the oldest of the Christian missionary endeavors.

Note that in Acts 11, it is nameless Christians who are doing the evangelism not the apostles!

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord.

The text only identifies these evangelists only as “some of them” but they are not the Apostles.   This evangelism is not intentional church planting but rather the result of the Christians being persecuted and scattered through the countryside.  Fleeing persecution, they go into the city of Antioch and find people receptive to their message.  They are being persecuted and fleeing and yet they are proclaiming Good News!   What seemed so good to them that despite being persecuted, running for their lives and becoming homeless refugees, that they still believed they had a message from God to offer to others?   Today prosperity Gospel people try to sell others on the notion that “faith” will lead to prosperity and good times.  But the early Christians had to acknowledge the truth that belief will lead to persecution – as Jesus had warned – and despite this others still join them.  The Kingdom of Heaven was desirable even though one had to suffer for it.  We should be so faithful!  We are not to be fair weather Christians – claiming to be Christians because it brings us prosperity, because times are good.  We need to be Christians even if we are living in poverty or in persecution.  That is true faith.

Note also, the faith is spreading ahead of or beyond any organized missionary outreach of the apostles.

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

The Apostles aren’t doing the evangelism, they hear that the faith is spreading and have to catch up with what the Holy Spirit is doing!  The Apostles are themselves learning what the Holy Spirit is doing throughout the world.  Rather than being led by the Spirit, the Apostles are following what the Spirit is doing elsewhere in the world.  Despite the fact that the Holy Spirit is leading evangelism far beyond the reach and knowledge of the Apoostles, the efforts of evangelism had to be approved of and endorsed by the apostles – already there is church structure and hierarchy, a recognized leadership – the apostles don’t accept that everyone can do and teach what they know to be the truth.  The Apostles insist on correct doctrine and church unity.  The apostles have the power to recognize which Christian communities are legitimate and they insure that correct doctrine is being taught.  They  are determining who is in communion with them.  On the other hand, the believers don’t wait for the apostles to tell them what to do, they are not looking to Jerusalem or Constantinople  to tell them when and where to start new missions.  All the believers are both living the faith and sharing it with others.  The Apostles however maintain the right to determine who is teaching the true faith.  The Apostles do send their representatives out to ensure there is correct doctrine and also that the new Christian respect apostolic authority.

Barnabus, the Apostle’s appointed delegate, looking at the new missionary effort and Christian community, “saw the grace of God”  – grace can be seen, it is visible.  He was able to see with his own eyes what the Holy Spirit was accomplishing.  The work of  the Holy Spirit in our own lives should be so visible to us, to the saints and to non-believers.

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.

Barnabus’ response to this new unplanned mission is joy and gladness.  He offers encouragement to these new believers.   He doesn’t feel threatened by or worried about the fact that new people are embracing Christianity even though the disciples themselves are not responsible for this church growth.  He exhorts these new disciples to continue with the Lord, to remain loyal, for discipleship is a continuous process of devotion.  Being a Christian is not a one time conversion but is a lifetime process of living the Gospel.

Note also when the Christians in Antioch learn of the impending famine threatening their fellow Christians, they don’t wait for fund raising letters from the Jerusalem or the Apostles, they take action themselves – they know what their response should be as Christians.  They understand their role in the church is to practice love.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

May we too be inspired to live the Gospel, to do what we know we should be doing as God’s people in terms of evangelism and charity.  Bringing both the Good News of eternal life to all as well as the love of God in the form of charity.

This brings us to the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).  First though I remind you of the words of our Lord Jesus:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.   (John 15:16-17)

Jesus goes into the land of the Samaritans – into a foreign land which belongs to those who consider the Jews their enemies.  Christ is showing us we are to have a relationship with the world – with those who don’t know the Gospel, who don’t understand God as, with those whom we may be suspicious about or consider them to be dubious people.  What should our relationship be with old friends and family who aren’t Orthodox?   The Samaritan woman shows us the way – she goes to them and talks to them about her encounter with Jesus.  She doesn’t tell these others how wrong they are in beliefs and practices, rather she extols Christ.

For His part, Jesus doesn’t judge the Samaritan woman for her life/lifestyle – she has been in multiple relationships with men, serial monogamy some would say.  He is irenic toward her, and calmly, wisely and gently leads her way from a worldly perspective to the truth.  But note first he asks her for help – give me a drink.  He helps bring her to the faith by first showing his own vulnerability, his own dependency, and that He needs the Samaritan woman to help Him.  That even becomes the basis of their conversation, for the woman quite rightfully can see the obvious – you can’t even get yourself a drink of water, how are you going to give me “living water“?     Jesus uses his obvious weakness and need to lead her into a conversation about the Kingdom.  He does not rebuke her sinfulness, but leads her to the kingdom.  Jesus fulfills what He has taught:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.   (John 10:14-16)

The Scriptures today show us two ways that we Christians might respond to strangers, to non-believers, to those we don’t like, and even to our enemies.  1) We might find that others reject our message and lifestyle, that others not only reject us but want to persecute us to change our minds or to drive us out of their towns.  We might have to find a new place to live and new people with whom we can share the Gospel.  Or,  2) We can show our humility by asking others for their help, showing our own vulnerability and humanness, recognizing that we are in need of and share their resources.  Only then, when we have established a human relationship do we  share with others the Good News of salvation as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman.  Instead of doing imperialistic evangelism (where we wrongly show our superiority and proclaim our triumphalism), we are to establish relationships with others first by showing we need them to be our neighbors.   [By the way, the Samaritan Woman is not anonymous, for in tradition we know her name as Photini.]

Whether we encounter people who are non-believers or are hostile to us, we are to respond as Christ did and as His disciples.  As St John Chrysostom once said, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.

Visions of the Liturgy: Old (Testament) and New (Children)

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

While Jesus taught that we have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God, through history theological reflection tended not to see the Kingdom from a child’s point of view.  Theology made ideas of the Kingdom ever more complex.  Even the Liturgy which is to reflect the Kingdom was not understood from the point of view of the child but became increasingly complex with layers of meaning that no child could even see let alone understand.  The Liturgy seems not to have been developed with the child in mind, and today many people do not appreciate children in the Liturgy because they are noisy, distracting, disruptive while they want an experience free of childlike behavior.   And yet we cannot enter that Kingdom unless we become like a child for the Kingdom and the Liturgy which reflects it are not the constructs of theologians, scholars, mystics and the highly educated experts, but are the revelation of and from God for those who can be children.

The late great liturgical scholar Robert Taft summarized the Orthodox Liturgy this way:

“In the cosmic or hierarchical scheme, church and ritual are an image of the present age of the Church, in which divine grace is mediated to those in the world (nave) from the divine abode (sanctuary) and its heavenly worship (the liturgy enacted there), which in turn images forth its future consummation (eschatological), when we shall enter that abode in Glory.  Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429), last of the classic Byzantine mystagogues, has synthesized this vision in chapter 131 of his treatise ON THE HOLY TEMPLE:

The church, is the house of God, is an image of the whole world, for God is every where and above everything.   .  .  .  The sanctuary is a symbol of the higher and super-celestial spheres, where the throne of God and his dwelling place are said to be.  it is this throne which the altar represents. … The bishop represents Christ, the church [nave] represents the visible world.  .  .  .

I mention the apostles with the angels, bishops and priests, because there is only one Church, above and below, since God came down and lived among us, doing  what he was sent to do on our behalf.  And it is a work which is one, as is our Lord’s sacrifice, communion, and contemplation.  And it is carried out both above and here below, but with this difference: above it is done without any veils or symbols, butt here it is accomplished through symbols. . . .

In the economic on anamnetic scheme, the sanctuary with its altar is at once: the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle decreed by Moses; the Cenacle of the Last Supper; Golgotha of the crucifixion; and the Holy Sepulchre of the resurrection, from which the sacred gifts of the Risen Lord — His Word and His body and blood — issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world.     . . .

In the iconography and liturgy of the church, this twofold vision assumes visible and dynamic form.  From the central dome the image of the Pantocrator dominates the whole scheme, giving unity to the hierarchical and economic themes.  The movement of the hierarchical theme is vertical: ascending from the present, worshiping community assembled in the nave, up through the ranks of the saints, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, to the Lord in the heavens attended by the angelic choirs.  The economic or ‘salvation-history’ system, extending outwards and upwards from the sanctuary, is united both artistically and theologically with the hierarchical. ”  (THE BYZANTINE RITE: A SHORT HISTORY, pp 69-70)

The Liturgy and the Church are about ranks of bishops, apostles, angels, priests, saints, prophets and patriarchs.   What is missing?  Children.  We cannot enter the Kingdom without them or without being one of them.   We don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Liturgy.  We need the eyes of a child.  If the received Tradition forgets that, it has forgotten a key to the Kingdom.  We can do the Liturgy perfectly rubrically correct, according to the Typikon, with every ritual required.   We still need to have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom.

It also is interesting that the received Tradition turned to and returned to the Old Testament for its liturgical meaning, rites and symbols rather than exploring themes suggested by the Gospel.   In the Old Testament, we understand, everything was in shadows and symbols:  “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…”  (Hebrews 10:1)   Christ came and revealed the Light opening Paradise to us, opening our hearts and minds and eyes to see clearly no longer in shadows: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  (Matthew 4:16)   But now according to Taft’s description it is the nave of the church and the non-clergy who live in the world of symbols (the shadowy world of the Old Testament!).  It is all that the Church permits for the non-clergy.    Behind the icon wall, reserved for the clergy is the Kingdom opened.  The Gospel, however, proclaims that we no longer sit in darkness or in shadows for the Light has come.   There is another effect of this return to the shadows of the Old Testament – the hierarchy serves to further distance the Savior from the people He saved!  It is moving away from Christ who ended all of the dividing walls and opened Paradise to all.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

Why Did the Early Church Grow So Fast?


In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty)…  (Acts 1:15)

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.   (Acts 2:41)

But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand.   (Acts 4:4)

St. John Chrysostom writes:

Did you not hear that, in the time of our forebears, the number of those who believed was one hundred and twenty? Rather, before the one hundred and twenty believed, there were only twelve. And not all of the twelve persevered, but one of them, Judas, perished. And then eleven were all that were left. Still, from the eleven came the one hundred and twenty and from the one hundred and twenty came three thousand, and then five thousand. And then they filled the whole world with the knowledge of God.

The reason for this growth was that they never left their gathering, They were constantly with one another, spending the whole day in the temple, and turning their attention to prayers and sacred readings. This is why they kindled a great fire, this is why their strength never waned, this is why the drew the whole world to them. We, too, must imitate them.   (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p. 283)

The Canaanite Woman: Breaking the Lord’s Boundaries

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.   (Matthew 15:21-28)

St Ephrem the Syrian taking the Gospel lesson writes lyrically: 

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness

conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.

The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles

that the gospel might not cross over.

Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,

The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength

of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymns, p. 379)

St. Innocent on Orthodox Mission Work

4624867820_b6c41af6dc_nWhat, then, shall we do? How ought we to proceed when, in the words of the Gospel, the harvest is great in our country (i.e., many remain unconverted to Jesus Christ)? “Pray to the Lord of the harvest,” Jesus Himself teaches us [Mt. 9:38]. Thus, first and foremost, we must pray. If even in everyday matters people fall back upon prayer – asking God’s blessing at the beginning of some work and then throughout asking for renewal and strengthening of the work’s might (where prayer means nothing more than help), here, in the matter of conversion, prayer becomes the means itself – and a most effectual of means, for without prayer one cannot expect success even under the most perfect of circumstances.

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Thus, it is not our missionaries alone who must pray; no, we their brethren must further their work by our own prayers. And what ought we to pray for? First, that the Lord will send workers into His harvest; second, that He will open the hearts of those who listen to the Word of the Gospel; third, that He will increase our Society’s numbers more and more; and finally that He will strengthen and confirm in us the desire we all now feel to further this work to the attaining of our goal.

(St. Innocent Apostle to America, Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, p. 141-142)

St. Nicholas of Japan, Equal to the Apostles

St. Nicholas, Equal to the Apostles and Archbishop of Japan, is  commemorated on February 16.  Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, the former bishop of Japan and now retired writes:

 

“I was in Japan when Nikolai Kasatkin was recognized as a saint and as a founder of the Japanese Orthodox Church given the title ‘equal to the apostles.’  I wished to know him as well as possible and so I set myself the task of translating his sermons, which were written in the Japanese of 100 years ago, as remote from modern Japanese perhaps as Slavonic is from Russian, so much has that language changed.  . . .  But gradually I filled a notebook with these sermons deciphered as if from a code and I was struck by the figure of this man . . .  First by his titanic will, a true soldier, or samurai, of Christ living in considerable isolation for 50 years and yet building a national church.  Beyond this I was struck by his pastoral spirit–how he reached out to the Japanese trying to find the words they could receive …

St. Nikolai… out of the pastoral need to explain to Japanese believers how Christianity could fit to the history and culture of their country… began to develop [a vision] from his first encounters with Buddhism, staying for some time in a Buddhist temple in Tokyo while the Holy Resurrection Cathedral was being built.  His first encounters with the native religion, Shinto, had been less positive, being threatened with death by a young Shintoist whom however, impressed by Nikolai’s courage and calm, became a convert and the first Orthodox Japanese priest.  And Nikolai saw good also in the Shinto heritage.   . . .

 

We would note that St. Nikolai does not engage what could be said to be a deeper metaphysics of Buddhism, for example the sense of ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Void’ as later Christian writers will do.  Nonetheless his orientation of in a sense full acceptance is in the spirit of the early Christian Fathers who regarded Greek and other cultures as being, like the Hebrew Old Testament, a good to be accepted as the ground which is completed in Christ.  The phrase Nikolai uses of ‘nursemaid’ is an early Christian expression for previous philosophy and religion. . . .  the vision of St. Nikolai Kasatkin, born out of the pastoral situation in Japan, both reaches back to the vision of the early church fathers such as St. Justin who said that all that is good is the heritage of Christians, whatever its source, and unites to and supports the vision of the world moving through the ages to God . . . 

So for one thing we see Fr. Men as in the tradition of St. Stephen of Perm, St. Innokenty Venniaminov and here clearly St. Nikolai Kasatkin, in openness to the cultures of those we approach in mission, and as to other religions the case is explicit in St. Nikolai… it is a building of bridges to other families of humanity and their faith.  This is in accord with the example of early Christians such as St. Justin who said that all that is good in human culture is our inheritance in Christ, and it is explicitly stated by St. Nikolai as we have seen…” 

(TAPESTRY, pp 86-92)

 

 

We Are Responsible for Our Neighbor’s Salvation

“Knowing as we do that we are responsible both for the salvation of our neighbors and their loss, let us so regulate our life as not only to be sufficient for ourselves but also to prove an occasion of instruction to others, so that we may draw down on us here and now the favor from God, and may in the future enjoy God’s loving kindness in generous measure, thanks to the grace and mercy of his only-begotten Son, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages. Amen.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Genesis, Homily 7, p. 104)

We are responsible for our own salvation and should live the life that corresponds to what we believe.  We are also responsible for our neighbor’s salvation which means we must live a life that witnesses to Christ in such a way that the neighbor will want to embrace what we have found in Christ.

The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this;, rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e. himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

The Parable of the Rebellious Tenants

Jesus taught:

“Hear another parable.

There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.

When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.

Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

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.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  (Matthew 21:33-42)

Jesus tells this parable in the context of asking some of the religious authorities what they thought about certain situations and what judgment they would render.  These same officials had been putting Jesus to the test with their questions, but then Jesus reversed the process and asked them to render their own judgments and opinions.

Jesus set the scene – the owner of a vineyard knows harvest time has come and he wants to collect some of the reward from having a vineyard.  But the tenants working for him rebel and decide to keep the profits for themselves.   Jesus asks the religious leaders, what do they think the owner of the vineyard should do with his rebellious tenants.  The leaders come down on the side of retributive justice, declaring the rebels are to be rightfully put to death.

But if we go back and think about the parable, is there any indication that the vineyard owner is at all a man of retribution and punishment?  None.

The owner’s initial reaction to his servants being killed and beaten, is not retribution nor punishment.  He simply decides to send more servants.  The larger group of servants is also not shown any respect by the tenants but rather are treated the same, some being murdered, others being physically driven away.

But again, the owner does not react with anger or revenge, rather he now sends his own son to the tenants, still looking for and hoping for a good response from his tenants.  The owner continues to treat the rebel tenants with respect.   But the tenants do not respond in kind, but rather become irrational declaring if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs.  That claim makes no sense at all.  No just law would give the inheritance to the murderers of the heir.   The bloodthirsty tenants have lost their minds and proceed to murder the owners son.

No where in the parable does Jesus ever give us the sense that the owner of the vineyard is cruel and terrible, or that he is vengeful, or would seek retributive justice.   The rebellious tenants of the parable may have deserved such treatment, but note it is not Jesus who ever says this, but rather it is the conclusion of the opponents of Jesus.

Jesus is using the parable to reveal to his opponents what is in their hearts and on their minds.  They think in terms of retribution and punishment.  But if that is their idea of God, then why don’t they live accordingly?  Why don’t they live in total fear of the God who they think is nothing but perfectly just and exacting?  If they believe God is so absolutely just as to punish every sinner, why don’t they themselves see their own need for repentance and the need for their own salvation?   The measure they give is the measure they will get – at least that would be consistent thinking.  Why then are they so unafraid to reject God’s prophets and God’s word?

It is a questions we might ask ourselves.  Are we exactly like those opponents of Jesus who teach and demand absolute retribution and punishment for all other sinners (except ourselves, of course!)?   Do we condemn the rebel tenants exactly like those opponents of Christ did and feel righteous indignation at the rebels behavior?  Do we find ourselves agreeing with Christ’s enemies?

Then whose side are we on?

What do we need to do to rethink our position in order to be more like Christ?

Or, do we too reject the stone which is the head of the corner and favor the position and teachings of the enemies of Christ?

Do we, like Christ’s enemies, believe in retribution and justice only for others but not for ourselves?

Is Christ offering us a different idea about our Creator, the God who so loves the world?