Jesus once told a story about a vineyard that was being managed by tenant farmers who ultimately proved to be untrustworthy. You can read the story in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 21 and verses 33 – 41. The story is a straightforward allegory of God’s dealings with humankind, as He gives them a world to live in and look after, then sends His messengers, the prophets, to them to tell them how to live. The world responds by rejecting the messengers. When God then sends His Son to show them how to live, they kill Him.
As God looks down on His creation, what pain and anguish must He feel at the scope of human rebellion? We, His creation, have caused untold suffering to one another and to the heart of God. Yet God’s response is always one of love and compassion. We glimpse this in the response of Jesus when He goes through towns and villages proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and heals every kind of sickness and disease. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36)
Three times in the last week I have been reminded of how easy it is to get overwhelmed by the state of the world. Firstly, while teaching a class about unreached peoples, the statistics reminded me of all the tribes that still have not heard the good news. In the Muslim world alone there are over 650 distinct people groups with more than ten thousand in population, among whom there is no Christian witness. Secondly, a friend, who had recently traveled among believers in Central Asia, spoke of being overwhelmed by the many testimonies of persecution as Christians suffer for their faith. Lastly, a visiting speaker representing the International Justice Mission spoke at church last Sunday. He spoke of the estimated thirty-six million people who today live in some kind of human slavery, be it labor-related, sexual or forced internment. Stories of African migrants drowning while being smuggled across the Mediterranean, and images of Burmese Rohingyas, stranded and abandoned in their smugglers’ boats, have invaded my mind.
It would be so easy to be overwhelmed. All over the world people are being rejected, by their society, by their economies, and even by the church. And the Son of God was rejected while also bearing all the rejection ever experienced by those he came to save. My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Mark 14:34), He cried while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest.
But God does not call us to be overwhelmed. He calls us to seek His will and purpose for our lives. In serving His will and purpose will we find our place alongside Him in bringing Jesus’ love to a little piece of the otherwise overwhelming world.
The story of the vineyard continues with Jesus’ quoting the Psalmist who says: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22). He leaves no doubt to the discerning mind, reading with the hindsight of the completed gospel, that He is referring to Himself. He, despite earthly rejection, has become the foundation for the work that God is still doing today through the church.
Jesus concludes this particular teaching with two warnings. Firstly, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from those who do not accept Him, and given to those who will produce its fruit. Secondly He makes a statement that seems, on the face of it, unpleasant whichever way it is responded to. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed. (Matt 21:44). Out of context we may be left wondering which we prefer. Cast against the complete story however we can understand that just as it is easy to become overwhelmed by a world of need, the full weight of God’s plans and purposes will crush us. He has never intended for us to shoulder the burden. That is rightly Christ’s and when we walk with Him we share in just a little piece of His yoke. On the other hand however, if we throw ourselves upon the rock of Christ, and allow ourselves to be broken into pieces and shaped by Him, we will truly be of value to Him and find His plan for us.
In the Kingdom of God there are overall principles. We are to love our God, to love our neighbors and to love our enemies. Those principles are there for the whole church. We are never to neglect them. But at a specific and personal level there are tasks for us to accomplish. There are works of service, of loving action, which are prepared for us to complete. Lest we become overwhelmed, let’s focus on the specific prayer, deed, gift, action, ministry, that we are called to engage in, and thus produce the fruit of the Kingdom.
Does this mean therefore that we are rejecting the big picture? Not at all! Paul reminds us of the word God spoke to Moses: I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:15). The specific task that God has called us to is where we will find our fulfillment in obedience to Him. As God leads, so all His tasks will be accomplished and His Kingdom will be fully realized. And in the meantime, the stone the builders rejected is more than big enough to respond to the big picture.