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Not As Entitled As You Think

Commentary
“Me and the man upstairs have an understanding.”

Did you ever hear something like that from someone who suggests they have an exemption from faith, the Bible, and any religious expectations?

We are called into a personal relationship with God, but it is God who sets the parameters and boundaries in that relationship, including how we are to address God.

The thing is, sometimes we believers think we’re entitled. Entitled to special exemptions, no restrictions, and free rein as if we owned own the place. I’m kind of reminded of those tabloids that suggest you can diet while eating yourself silly. Hmm….

These scriptures suggest we are called to enter a mature relationship with God. Take the Ten Commandments. Instead of thinking them as a series of “thou shalt nots”, it might be helpful to remember that boundaries are what make relationships work more harmoniously. These are for our well-being.

In the Philippian scripture, Paul challenged his readers who thought they were better than others and more advanced in the faith and therefore entitled to a special status.. Instead, Paul, who outranked them all,encouraged them to be like him, still striving for the prize.

And finally, Jesus tells a pointed parable that strikes home to the religious leaders, and hopefully to us. We don’t own the church, er, vineyard.

You’re not as entitled as you think, but you’re saved because God would have it so.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
The Ten Commandments seem pretty cut and dried. Do these things (or don’t do the things you’re not supposed to be doing). Yet believers have taken these words (in Jewish tradition they’re known as the Ten Words) and divided them differently. In some traditions there are as many as thirteen commandments contained in these words. Christians of different traditions divide the words into ten commandments, but they’re not the same ten.

Well, that’s not surprising. These are not cut and dried. The commandments invite us to come together as mature believers to discuss what they mean.

Aren’t they already clear? you make ask. You think? Some Amish don’t want their face photographed, nor do their dolls have faces, because those are graven images. Other Christians scrapbook, not seeing these as graven images.

The question of what constitutes keeping the sabbath was not only controversial in Jesus’ day. We Christians don’t even agree which day is the sabbath, much less what we can do and what we can’t do. It’s not even a question of whether grocery stores and restaurants should be open or closed. It’s hard to imagine a modern society that operates without hospitals and police seven days a week.

And as for honoring our parents, Jesus was aware that the Corban customs of his day allowed an individual to live like a sinner and look like a saint, failing to care for a parent because they had promised their money to the temple coffers after death. Meantime they could spend their money on themselves while alive. In other words, they could live like a sinner but look like a saint.

The first three commandments in Exodus 20:13 are expressed in two Hebrew words: “No murder. No adultery. No stealing.” Jesus took these simple words and added the phrases, “You have heard it said….but I say unto you….”, showing us that we need to interpret even the simplest commandments so that we can keep them in thought as well as deed.

The same is true for us. We struggle with the definition of murder. Is capital punishment murder? Is something as simple as a do not resuscitate order a form of murder?  

The Ten Commandments require us to be a covenant community willing to wrestle with the difficulty of determining boundaries not because we want to forbid things, but because we want to be able to live together in harmony and peace. It is only by engaging in constant discussion and discovery as God’s people, and not as solitary individuals, that we make life not only livable, but bearable. It’s our well-being that is at stake. We are not entitled individuals who determine for ourselves what these words mean. We are interpreters together.

Philippians 3:4b-14
In the this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the apostle challenges his listeners who think they are better than others, more advanced in the faith and therefore entitled to a special status, that if it comes to qualifications he outranks them all. Instead of claiming that exalted status, Paul understands himself and all of us as still striving for the prize.

Just go to YouTube and you’ll find examples of what happens if a runner takes their eyes off the tape stretched across the finish line. Even though they may have run the perfect race a loss of concentration can lead to the loss of the prize towards which someone has been working all their life!

Now you might say that since we’re saved there’s no need to keep our eyes on the prize. We have already won it (although Paul here says he hasn’t quite accomplished that). but if we switch sports metaphors from racing to the last few minutes in a blowout in a basketball game, something often referred to as “garbage time,” we may have seen that when players think the game is over they may lose concentration and that can lead to injuries. It’s important to stay focused at all times in the work of the kingdom.

Matthew 21:33-46
The issue of entitlement is at the heart of this pointed parable told by Jesus, which seemed to fly away like a boomerang from the controversies about contemporary issues like John the Baptist and the authority of Jesus (see Matthew 21:23-27) only to change directions and fly directly back towards the religious authorities.

And they knew it. Towards the end of this passage it is revealed the chief priests and pharisees know exactly who Jesus is referring to in this parable, and it’s them, and only the popularity of Jesus among the ordinary people prevents them from killing him at that moment.

This parable parallels the parable told in Isaiah 5:1-7, about the vineyard that fails to produce grapes. But here it is not the grapes that are at fault. It’s the tenant farmers.

Now this is a dangerous parable for Jesus too. It could have backfired on him. To many of his listeners, day laborers who had been driven off their land by finding themselves in deep debt, the tenant farmers might have initially been the sympathetic characters, and the distant landowner, who went off to live in another country, the unsympathetic figure. But the unreasonable actions of beating, killing, and stoning the slaves sent by the master to collect his share of the vineyard’s harvest cast the tenants in a difficult light. When they kill the owner’s son, they have lost any sympathy ordinary listeners might have had.

The summation of Jesus (Matthew 21:43) makes it clear to the religious leaders that any sense of entitlement because they are descendants of Abraham is misplaced. They would have felt insulted by being identified with the tenant farmers, and the listeners, who may have felt the leaders were too full of themselves, might have laughed. The powerful do not like being laughed at, and only their fear of the crowd prevents them from immediately carrying out plans to kill Jesus.

The danger here, of course, is if we laugh at the chief priests and pharisees, we’re ignoring that boomerang which seems to be striking a target two thousand years in the past. It’s bound to swing back into the present and knock us off our perch, along with our sense of entitlement.

You’re not as entitled as you think, but you’re saved as God wills.
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