Jackson Snyder, 1995
upd. July 26, 2002
Based on a message by Roger G. Talbott
PREVIEW A History of the Christian Church, 4th Edition Williston Walker - objective history - this is a tome
A Book of Warnings
The New York Times Magazine (September 9, 1994, p. 14) showed a series of photographs of a rock formation in Yosemite National Park. A yellow plastic sign was attached to the rocks that clearly said:
"Danger. Climbing on rocks is extremely dangerous. They are slippery when dry or wet. Many injuries and even fatalities have occurred."
One picture showed a woman walking on the rocks in a tight dress and high heels. Another showed a man carrying his dog because it was too slippery for the dog. Another showed a man carrying a baby while walking on the rocks. What is it about people that cause them to ignore clear warnings? Why do we use consumable goods that carry a government-mandated warning label? Why do people ignore the doctor's warnings about being overweight and under-exercised? Why do entire civilizations ignore warnings about environmental pollution, or the revolutionary pressures created by economic injustice? There are warnings not to be ignored.
The Bible might be characterized as a book of how Yahweh gives warnings and people ignore them. Yahweh warns Adam and Eve not to eat the apple or they'll die. He gives Noah the plans for a boat that takes him 100 years to build -- time enough for all his neighbors to get the message that a flood was coming. Moses tells Pharaoh to let the people go or Yahweh will send plagues on Egypt. Even when the plagues start coming, Pharaoh refuses the warning. The prophets tell Israel to change her ways or suffer the consequences, but Israel ignores the prophets, beats them, even kills some of them -- then suffers and is still suffering the consequences.
Jesus warns the political leaders in the story of the vineyard we just read. They’d challenged his right to free speech. His response is an allegory – a story with a deeper meaning. The vineyard is the people of Israel. The tenants are their political leaders. The landowner is Yahweh. He sends agents to these leaders to tell them to serve the Harvest Master by paying their rent. The political leaders have ignored, persecuted and even killed Yahweh’s agents, the prophets. Finally, the landowner sends his son, whom we understand to be Yahshua Messiah. ‘Jesus’ knows that these leaders have already decided to murder him, so he builds that into the story. He asks the government leaders to whom he’s speaking, "What will the landowner do to these tenants who have driven away his servants, the prophets, and killed his son?" The leaders give the obvious answer: the landowner will come in and destroy these tenants in divine retribution. So this parable is a warning -- the last warning these g-men will get.
People are Afraid
What is it about people anyway? Why do we ignore warnings? The answer is that we’re afraid. You'd think that fearful people would respond immediately to warnings, but that's not the case. Psychologists tell us that fearful people construct false beliefs to protect them from their fears. We know what some of those false beliefs are: the notion expressed by our own political leaders that we Americans are exceptions to the rule; the belief that one more drink, one more smoke, one more greasy sandwich, one more step out onto the rocky ledge, won't hurt us because we Americans have the best doctors in the world; the belief that abortion-on-demand or genetic tampering are merely political matters and will make no difference in the end because we are, after all, “one nation under God”; the belief that those who warn us don't know what they're talking about or that they're exaggerating the danger or it’s none of their business anyway.
The Slippery Slope of False Beliefs
The mountains of false beliefs are paved with slippery slopes. In the field of ethics, the "slippery slope" argument is well known. We can define the "slippery slope" in just a few words: "give an inch, they'll take a mile." Once the inch is given, there's no turning back. A snowball becomes an avalanche.
Take abortion, for instance. A minor Supreme Court decision made in 1973 opened a tiny door that has, in the last 30 years, been responsible for the deaths of over 42 million children in this country. The devaluation of children in our generation has led to unprecedented numbers of their disappearances and the multitude of unrepentant child molesters and murders. As our country slides down this terrifying slope into unpardonable sin, we still perform over 5,000 "partial birth abortions" every year and doctor-assisted suicides are becoming commonplace. As a side effect, the Social Security system will undoubtedly crash within ten years because too many children have been killed off in the last thirty. Who will pay? What's the final destination down the slippery slope? The Lake of Fire is the end of the line. Yahweh's warnings of retribution peal out to our leaders and peoples through modern day prophets as loudly today as in Bible days. It’s not easy to be a prophet these days. No one pays any heed. The Word of Yahweh is no longer important; convenience is important. It may already be too late save for a direct intervention by our god and king.
Are We In Control?
The greatest of these false beliefs is that we are somehow in control of our dizzying descent downward. In Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, he says that the first astronauts spent a lot of time going to the funerals of comrades who were killed in test planes. Still they didn't face the reality that testing experimental aircraft is an inherently dangerous line of work. Instead they believed that the difference between them and the ones they buried was that they had the right stuff and the pilots who died didn’t. We likewise tell ourselves: Why should I fasten a seat belt? What are the chances that I'm going to be in a wreck today? Or, Why should I go vote? What difference does one vote make? The five hundred votes that made a difference in the last presidential election were all cast one-by-one. Although we thoroughly understand the psychological tricks other people play on themselves, we seldom perceive the tricks we play on ourselves. If we did, we wouldn't play. Or would we?
The Arc of History Bends Toward Justice
Now the Bible is concerned with the tricks we play on ourselves. Jesus describes them in the tenth chapter of Matthew where he says, "Don't fear those who kill the body but can't kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." The trick is that we fear the wrong thing, the wrong people, the wrong situations. The tenants in the parable were afraid of paying the rent. They should have been afraid of the landlord instead. The political leaders were afraid of losing their power. But they should have been afraid of divine retribution!
As I read this passage, I think that Jesus' situation is like that of the apparently powerless threatened by the powerful. I thought of the Christian missionary Martin Burnham who was recently killed by Muslim terrorists in the Philippines after a year of terrible incarceration. The missionary might warn the terrorists that harming him could cause the liberal news media to turn against their cause. Of course, the terrorists would laugh at that. Terrorists, like greedy abortionists, aren't afraid of public opinion. But they are afraid of revolution within their ranks. They're afraid only of losing money, power and influence. They're afraid that if they don't oppress others, their own bunch will suffer loss of economic, political or social clout.
Yet such demonic oppressors of the poor, weak, and unborn should quake with fear when they hear the prophecies of Yahweh about judgment. On such, the prophet named Martin Luther King said, "The arc of history is a long, long arc, but it [ultimately] bends [back] toward justice." In other words, "Some day the landlord himself will come knock, knock, knocking at the front door."
Matthew (also) wrote this story while the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. It was a time of incredible suffering and Matthew certainly understood it as the judgment of Yahweh upon the people of Jerusalem for having murdered his Son. As Scripture tells us, the landowner "will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will pay the rent." Judgment fell forty years later. Many of those who died in Jerusalem were children or as yet to be born when Jesus was put to death. It took that long for judgment to come only because of Yahweh’s mercy. Us not heeding the warnings of Yahweh may visit future retribution on our children to the third and fourth generations. That’s a warning that’s proven absolutely true in all generations since the dawn of humanity. I might venture to say that everyone here has seen the effects of our personal sins upon children and grandchildren.
We Must Pay the Rent
Yes, M. L. King was right. It's a fact that the “arc of history eventually bends back toward justice.” It's true that the heinous crimes of a Hitler or a Stalin are eventually brought to light. We may never know the extent of the crimes committed by our previous president. Unfortunately, such individuals are often not punished so that we can see it. Whether we see it or not, their punishment arrives. Their descent down the slippery slope is a prelude to their arrival in the Lake of Fire. Yes, because he loves us, Yahshua Messiah severely warns us that it is quite possible for us to commit spiritual suicide that is final and eternal. And we surely do so when we refuse to pay the Landlord’s rent on this vineyard we call ‘life.’
What's the rent demanded? An ancient prophet wondered about this. Given the value of life, one might expect that the rent would be stupendous: "Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of dead rams (i.e. sacrifices), or with ten thousand rivers of oil (i.e. big money)?" (Micah 6:7) The answer is NO; sacrifices, money, and goods can't pay life's assessments. "Yahweh has already told you, Son of Man, what is acceptable; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your Elohim?" (vs. 8) Justice, kindness and humility are just about the biggest words in the Bible and describe the type of coin that is negotiable in Yahweh's sight. Justice … kindness … humility.
Justice means more than just having the punishment fit the crime or providing a fair distribution of resources. It means we must establish, preserve, build and rebuild righteous and caring relationships. It means that I can look my neighbor in the eye and she can look me in the eye. It means we can respect each other's boundaries and if we ever trespass against our neighbor, we make amends, restoring double for what we've taken or destroyed. It means we treasure our lives and the lives of every one of those whom the Almighty has ordained to live from the foundation of the world. The just are always pro-life. The just are always pro-liberty. The just are always anti-evil. The just of this world model the justice of Yahweh as it is written on the hearts of the justified and in the Books of the Law and Prophets.
Kindness means that if my brother or sister or my neighbor is in trouble, I must help him or her. Kindness means I answer Cain's question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" with a resounding "yes." And when I ask myself, "Who is my neighbor?" I remember the parable of the Good Samaritan -- that my neighbor may even be someone who comes from the other side of the world or the other side of the tracks; she may be an unborn child; she may even look to me like an enemy or a foreigner. We are to be as kind as we are given leave to be.
Walking humbly means I walk with the Father remembering who I am and who He is, which means remembering that I am not smarter than Yahweh or more in control than He. Instead, my ways are to be subordinated to HIS ways. Let's not kid ourselves. The rent on life is pretty high if it means doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. Just think what it would mean in your own life to make sure all your relationships were fair and to make amends to all those you have trespassed against. Think what it would mean to reach out to people in your family and among your closest acquaintances who are in trouble and really help them -- to say nothing of reaching out to people on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the world. Above all, think what it would cost to walk humbly -- to give up control, or your demonic illusion of control, over everything in your particular version of reality. It might also mean accepting some people as they are: flawed, ungracious, imperfect, unreasonable, poor, unclean.
The Soul is Wounded
If we are new creations in Messiah, our souls take mortal wounds when we engage in injustice. But though I've seen thousands of people who don't have enough to eat or any place to live, and though I really have more than I need, still I'm afraid to share much of what I have. I’m afraid I won't have enough for me. (Admit it with me.) But what does it do to my soul to have too much when others don't have anything? Maybe I should be more fearful of the spiritual suicide that comes from sliding down the slippery slope than of anything else. Maybe I should respect the Judge and fear his judgment!
Friends, heed Yahweh's warning signs, for such herald the forks in your road of life; you must always make a clear choice for right. The road that most choose is a slippery way of illusion, deception and destruction that ultimately leads to the first death and then to the second, eternal death. But the narrow and unpopular fork, the one seldom traveled, the way of justice, kindness, and companionship with Yahweh and his creation, leads to life and life in abundance. Do what is right and just. Don’t do what is wrong. Choose the road to forever. Choose this day who you will serve and who you will pay. Amen.