Things that often created huge problems for the
first Christians don't seem to bother most modern Christians. For example,
we're so comfortable 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
experience. Those who actually tried to imitate Jesus' faith - even
non-Jews - discovered a dimension in their everyday lives that most people
could observe only from a distance.
Peace of God
In Sunday's second reading, Paul zeroes in on
just one part of that experience: peace (Phil 4: 6-9). "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."
That tranquil existence doesn't happen
automatically. Notice the prerequisites Paul puts forth: "Your thought
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
that 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
Sunday's Gospel (Mt 21: 33-43).
We know from the first reading (Is 5: 1-7) 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
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 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.