Often things which created huge problems for the first Christians don’t seem to bother most modern Christians. For example, we’re so comfortable today in thinking of Jesus as creating a new religion that the historical split between Christians and Jews makes perfectly good sense. Yet our earliest Christian authors, like Paul and Matthew, didn’t conceive of the situation in those terms. One of their most vexing problems revolves around the question, “Why are Gentiles more eager to accept the reform of Judaism which Jesus preached and lived than the Jews to whom he ministered?”
All agree that it has something to do with experiences. Those who actually tried to imitate Jesus’ faith – even non-Jews – discovered a dimension in their everyday lives which most people could only observe from a distance.
In today’s second reading, Paul zeroes in on just one part of that experience: peace. “Dismiss all anxiety from your minds,” he tells the Philippians. “Present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude. Then God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
This tranquil existence doesn’t happen automatically. Notice the prerequisites Paul puts forth. “Your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise. Live according to what you have heard me say and seen me do. Then will the God of peace be with you.”
Getting people to break out of their old religious habits and step into the new relationship with God and others which Jesus experienced and shared was more difficult than his first followers had thought. That’s why we find so much reflection on the problem in our Christian Scriptures – nowhere as pointedly stated as in today’s Matthew pericope.
We know from our Isaiah passage that the image of Israel as Yahweh’s vineyard is classic. Yet, as the prophet demonstrates, it’s a two-edged sword. The vineyard on which the author’s “friend” spends so much time and effort ends up yielding useless “wild grapes.” As the prophet puts it, “The vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!” Something which was intended to bring about the peace Paul envisions, actually delivered strife and war.
Matthew’s Jesus carries the disappointing vineyard image one step beyond Isaiah. The prophet simply says Yahweh will destroy his creation; Jesus talks about leasing “his vineyard out to others who will see to it that he has grapes at vintage time.” In the evangelist’s mind, the good product depends on whether or not one accepts Jesus and his reform. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the keystone of the structure. It was the Lord who did this and we find it marvelous to behold.”
What is this “kingdom of God (which) will be taken away from you and given to a people who will yield a rich harvest?” From other sections of the Christian Scriptures, it’s clear that, among other things, kingdom of God refers to our ability to perceive God at work in our daily, ordinary lives. The reality and closeness of God’s kingdom among us lit the fuse for the historical Jesus’ entire ministry, eventually leading to his death and resurrection.
Perhaps one reason Gentiles accepted Jesus’ faith more quickly and eagerly than his fellow Jews was because they didn’t have to deal with all the religious baggage the Chosen People brought to the situation. Jesus had encouraged his followers to slough off a lot of that baggage by constantly returning to the essentials of faith; something he still expects us to do today.