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Sticks and Stones

John 8 begins with Jesus teaching in the local temple, as he often did. The gospel helpfully tells us in verse 2 that “all the people” were present. We do not know how many people were there, but we do know that Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, on a popular Jewish holiday, at the height of his ministry. Safe to say there were a good number present.

The Pharisees bring a woman in front of the crowd, and make three claims: 1) this woman has committed adultery, 2) we (the Pharisees) follow the Law of Moses, and 3) according to the Law of Moses, this woman should be stoned. They then ask Jesus, “What do you say?”

The Pharisees’ attention, and even the attention of the author of John, is on Jesus at this point. The woman isn’t even addressed until the end of the whole ordeal! However, as I read this story recently I was struck by the position of the woman. She had been kidnapped, put in front of a massive crowd of people, and had her deepest and darkest secrets announced for all to hear. As I was praying about what this story meant for the church today, the Lord pointed out is how we consistently do this when speaking about others.

I am not a subtle person. Sometimes I can use that as an excuse to be a little edgy in what I bring up for conversation. It can be fun to bring up controversial topics about celebrities, politicians, acquaintances, or, in the right situations, people I call friends. We can use the excuse of being concerned, or having an “intelligent conversation” about the state of our country, or that it can be a lesson for ourselves or others.

Unfortunately, what I am really doing is stripping people made in the image of God of their dignity.

Much like the Pharisees, I have made a value-based decision that a person’s worth, reputation, and image in my own eyes as worth less than the joke I am about to make or the story I am about to tell. I have taken a person, dragged them before the crowd, and sentenced them as guilty. In the process I’ve even goaded others, innocent bystanders, into the stoning of the other person.

Now, obviously, we are not actually stoning anyone. And there is no reality where we could never talk about another person ever again.

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

However, I wonder if the same spiritual principle Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:21-22, where the hatred of another person is equated with murder, is not applicable here. When we throw another person under the bus, even people who we don’t know, are we condemning them as irredeemable or less than human, much like the Pharisees did to this woman?

I think Jesus’ response offers two redeeming options. The first option is to not engage. In verse 6, Jesus’ first response is to make himself busy. He simply does not acknowledge their charge. Sometimes this has to be your response, especially with people you don’t know well or with folks who are not Christians. Refuse to pollute your mind with the lack of dignity given to another person.

The second option is confrontation. In John 8:7, when ignoring the Pharisees wasn’t good enough, Jesus responds with a charge of his own. Now, I am not suggesting we throw our sins in each other’s faces, but I am suggesting that the way we treat and talk about one another matters enough to get personal.

If you have a brother or sister in Christ who cannot stop talking about other people, whether they are talking about someone in culture, your family, your friends, or your church, be willing to confront them on this issue. Paul deals with gossip extensively in his letters, naming it along with other horrific things which cause division amongst Christians. Proverbs addresses those who gossip and slander twelve times, calling those do so a “fool.” It even say that someone who does gossip sets snare for their own downfall (Proverbs 18:6-7).

At the end of this story, Jesus and the woman are alone. He’s face to face with the one who has been accused. But, instead of condemning her, he gives her grace and dignity. He acknowledges her humanity and sets her free, not just from her situation, but from sin itself! What opportunities are we missing out on to love one another? What does it mean for us to be people who spread grace instead of hatred? Can we lift one another up instead of tearing one another down? Can we make it so that our words “build others up according to their needs?” (Ephesians 4:29). Lord, make it so.

 

By Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

(Featured Image Artwork by Gustave Adore)

Faithful To

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

The renters are given everything they needed to produce wine, including a press and a wall (v. Mt. 21:33).  They weren’t given just one vine of grapes but an entire production and probably a vast amount of land full of fruit-producing plants (Is. 16:8).  The grape farmers were deeply faithful to the vineyard – they produced good grapes.  In fact, the owner was very satisfied and sent servants to go get his portion – presumably the rent he was owed – from the tenants (Mt. 21:34, 38).

Of course, the owner had the rights to everything in that farm since he’d built it and owned it outright.  All he’d asked for was payment from the ones renting the property. More than that, the owner didn’t even demand a finished product of wine, he only wanted the grapes as they were being harvested (v.34).  So, the renters would have been left with many bunches of grapes, a wine press, and the safety in which to make and then sell a lucrative product.

In return for rent in the form of grapes, the farmers could produce wine.  The renters were unrestricted beyond that – they were not considered slaves or even servants of the vineyard’s owner (v. 34).  In other words, in return for only rent, the tenants were given a vast supply of produce to sell, freedom to use it as they wanted, and land on which to live.  It wasn’t just a fair agreement, it was a fully gracious agreement.  The owner planned to make them wealthy.

And, the renters had been very faithful in growing and producing grapes.  They were good at their craft.  In fact, they were fiercely loyal to the vineyard.  As it turned out, they would eventually murder to keep it and its produce.

When he doesn’t receive what he is rightfully owed, the landlord sent one servant and then another to the vineyard to collect.  When they ferociously kill both servants, in an act of unprecedented and lavish grace, the owner sends his son to gather the payment.  He did not send his son with an army to imprison, enslave, or execute the renters who had access to his land and an income from his produce (vv. 37-38).  He sent his son to represent himself, thinking that maybe the renters didn’t respect the servants he’d sent.  But, in fierce defense of grapes, the renters slaughter the son too.  Instead of being content with their huge portion of wealth, the renters were also greedy enough to obtain the portion belonging to the owner’s son – his inheritance (v. 38).

In either case, in this scenario, the grapes or wine were going to be produced.  It would either be done in faithfulness to the owner or in faithfulness to the vineyard and its renters.  Of course, the owner had the right to take everything, but he was generous.  In return, while attempting to tend the owner’s vineyard, the renters became so infatuated with the grapes that they began to think of them as their own bunches of tiny fruit.  Instead of remaining faithful to the owner in their gardening and sending, they were intensely faithful to their grapes.  Instead of sending to the Father, they were going to send and sell the grapes elsewhere.  Instead of being faithful to the one who had the power to create and gift vineyards, they were faithful to the yield of the vineyard.

In using our talents, we must be faithful to the one to whom we are sending.  When someone becomes more attached to the people in whom they are invested or the gifts the Spirit has given, the heart attaches to those things or people instead of the Father.  This action chisels the soul away from the rightful, lavishly gracious, and loving Owner.  It causes us to become vicious in defending the product. It causes what we produce to become more valuable to us than God. We are left holding onto something that will die instead of onto the indulgent and infinite Life Creator.

The question isn’t “what have we produced,” but to whom will we be faithful with what we’ve been given?  To whom will we send the fruit?  Our fruit may be used for others, but it is ultimately given to God.

In the end, faithfulness to fruit rather than faithfulness to the Owner – the Father – took the tenants outside of his grace.  It may seem as if the owner instigated this by finally “bringing those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41, NAS).  However, by rejecting the grace of the Generous One, the farmers took themselves out of his favor.  They were attempting to disconnect the vineyard from the Owner.  They brought their own destruction because they were cutting themselves off from the Creator – the builder of the vineyard.

Of course, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who came to the violent conclusion of a “wretched end” for the renters.  The Jewish leaders decided that judgement in some form of painful and dignity defying death would be best.  Jesus, in his grace, only said the vineyard would be given away to those who would be faithful to the Father, producing for and sending the grapes to him (v. 43).  Jesus — who is exemplified by the murdered son in the parable — does not choose to repay death with death.  Instead, he moves leadership away from the Pharisees — exemplified by the tenants — allowing them another chance at restoration.  Whether we are faithful or not, restoration lives in the heartbeat of Jesus.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor