Prayer of the Day: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“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.” Matthew 21:43.
Long before the days of ATMs and online deposits, I brought a check to my bank for deposit at one of the tellers windows. The teller promptly deposited the check and handed me a deposit receipt. While inspecting it on the way out, I noticed that the amount recorded on the receipt was exactly fifty dollars less than the amount on the check. Needless to say, I returned it to the teller who, after consulting with a bank manager, reissued the receipt in the correct amount with profuse apologies. “Not a problem,” I replied. “Just glad we caught it.” The bank manager was not quite so sanguine. “Don’t forget,” I heard him say to the teller. “You can be replaced.” Though not directed at me, those words and the tone in which they were spoken sent a chill down my spine. Perhaps the chief priests and Pharisees to which Jesus directed his parable felt the same.
I pause here to state what should be obvious, namely, that the passage cited above does not support the heretical supersessionist view that Christianity is God’s “better” replacement for Judaism. In fact, this text comes to us from a time before which either “Judaism” or “Christianity” existed as such. There was in Jesus’ day a people of Israel consisting of faith communities in Judea, Galilee, Samaria and regions scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The Jesus movement was one of several such communities. The boundaries for inclusion within Israel were disputed, as was the locus of genuine religious authority. Moreover, the parable is not directed against Israel as a whole, but against the chief priests and the Pharisaic leaders in Jerusalem. Consequently, Jesus’ harsh condemnation of the temple establishment and its leaders (similarly delivered by other faith communities within Israel) cannot be interpreted as a rejection of Israel in favor of a new chosen people.
How, then shall we read this text in our present context? As the parable is directed to the “clergy” of Jesus’ day, perhaps that is the place we ought to start. Maybe this text presents a challenge to those of us on the roster who identify as “called” to reflect on the kinds of fruit we produce. That is an especially uncomfortable task for me as I am currently retired from full time ministry. What I have done is done. It isn’t as though reflection on my part is going to benefit the church’s ministry going forward. Still, I am part of a living community of faith and so, along with all the baptized, I stand in need of confession, repentance and absolution.
“Fruit” is important for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew’s gospel. It is the defining characteristic of a true disciple. “You will know them by their fruits,” says Jesus. Matthew 7:16. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’” Matthew 7:21-22. I suppose I might plead, “Was I not baptized and confirmed in your name? Was I not ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in your name?” Yet the possibility remains that my fruits might be such as to make me altogether unrecognizable as disciple of Jesus. Matthew 7:23.
While I am sure there are more shortcomings in my ministry than I am aware of, the one that grieves me most is my failure to appreciate properly the faithfulness and dedication of my lay leaders. In my first parish, I was particularly critical of my treasurer who seemed always to be fretting about the state of our finances when I was trying to get our council to focus on mission opportunities. “Why does it always have to come down to dollars and cents?” I asked at one meeting in a tone of exasperation. Though addressed to the council as a whole, my treasurer felt the brunt of that remark-as I probably intended. I didn’t stop to think that this woman, now in her 60s, was taking on a responsibility nobody else wanted, that she lay awake at night worrying about meeting the church’s expenses-not the least of which was my salary-or that she already had a full time job and an infirm relative to care for. Of course, I stand by my firm belief that a church’s life is guided not by the resources it has on hand, but by the mission to which it is called. But the faith required to sustain such a vision should not fall solely on the individual who must pay the bills and balance the books. What my treasurer needed was an expression of my appreciation for her good work and my assurance that she would be supported no matter what financial difficulties might arise from our decisions.
Nothing used to frustrate me more than council meetings at which we discussed and re-litigated again and again issues that were resolved in prior meetings, as evidenced by the minutes we approved! “These people have memories like mayflies!” I once vented to a colleague. Then, after resigning my first call, I went to law school and spent the next twenty-one years in practice. Although I remained on the clergy roster and did some supply preaching during that time, I was for all intents and purposes simply another member of the congregation to which I belonged. In this new life, the church and its rhythms were no longer the focus of my day to day existence. There I learned what it is like to work between sixty and seventy hours a week, care for sick family members, carry the weight of anxiety about potential unemployment and deal with the struggles of my children in school-only to be snapped at during a counsel meeting because I could not recall exactly what happened at a meeting that took place the month before. When I took my second full time call, I made a point of trying to exercise more patience, understanding, appreciation and compassion for these people who were giving up an evening at home with their families to support the work of their church. I hope that I did a better job the second time around.
When Jesus warns us that the kingdom might be taken away from us, he cannot be understood to mean that we are lost to the kingdom. The kingdom is God’s generous gift to the whole world God created and loves. It cannot be confiscated by anyone, neither will God rescind it. The kingdom does not belong to us anymore than it belonged to the chief priests and the Pharisees. Like them, we are stewards of the mysteries of God, spokespeople for the kingdom. Like them, we are not indispensable. We can be replaced. The call to be servants to the servants of God is a privilege, not a right. If we fail to produce the fruits of the kingdom, God will find others for this good work. That is good news for the people of God, even though it strikes a little healthy fear into the hearts of us clerics.
I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that, whatever my shortcomings, God has permitted me to remain in the ministry of Word and Sacrament for all these years. Nonetheless, I am sure that “the Day” will disclose much in my ministry that will fail the test of “fire.” I Corinthians 3:10-15. But however much of the work I might have botched, Saint Paul assures me that I myself can yet be saved-albeit by fire. I Corinthians 3:15. We do well, I think, to read Jesus’ parable as a sobering reminder that we are not irreplaceable, that we are fallible vessels for an infinite treasure and that the time we have to be of service is extremely limited. So we are left with the prayer of Moses, the man of God: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.” Psalm 90:17.
Here is a poem about lost opportunity for fruitfulness that should inspire us to use wisely and well the time and the gifts we have been given in order to be fruitful servants for the kingdom of God.
What’s left of my garden is
bathed in the moon’s white, frosty glow.
Big green tomatoes which will never ripen
into juicy red fruit
hang motionless from vines dried and dead.
The soil I spent so much time turning
over, mulching and raking is now choked
with weeds and littered with fallen leaves.
An early freeze took all but a few hearty geraniums.
Those remaining are but a sad, ruined shadow of
the flowerbed I envisioned beneath the
fig and mirabella trees.
My shovel, rake and hoe resting in the wheelbarrow
nearby accuse me of neglect.
They have been sitting idle, caked with dirt
since early spring.
This garden has too seldom felt the caring
touch of a gardener.
Many a day its parched earth cried out for water.
Weeds choked its tender shoots without mercy.
I saw, but was consumed with more important things.
Now, my heart grieves for this little plot of ground,
this garden which I planted but could not cultivate,
and for all the dreams I have failed to nourish,
the plans for good I have allowed to die.