Monday, October 06, 2008

Life's Priorities

Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

One of the tricks to reading from the Hebrew prophets is to put the context in its proper historical setting. That which was written and intended for a particular audience during a particular time is not necessarily applicable to a particular contemporary period and is not always an instance of foretelling. And within this approach to the Hebrew prophets should be at least a tacit understanding that the people of Israel and Judah were probably no different then than we are now, with the obvious exception of technology.

The other stark difference, of course, is that Judah is largely in exile, having been driven from their land by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, ostensibly at the direction of the Lord Himself; we are safely nestled in the good ol’ USofA with hardly a threat of exile. And given the reality that it is unlikely we will face exile anytime soon, it is hard for us to take seriously what the Exile meant to the people of Judah and how it affected the relationship between them and the Lord.

Humanity has been at war with itself since Cain and Abel, and the period of the Exile is no exception because even as Babylon as a power overwhelmed Judah, it still faced a threat from Persia and eventually did fall to Persian king Cyrus which ultimately led to the release of Judah. These are kings who were looking to expand their territories or making pre-emptive strikes to protect their interests, and little of it seems to have a direct influence from the Lord although the prophet is quick to point out that the people of Judah and Israel have no one to blame but themselves.

If it can be disputed that the Lord did not directly guide Nebuchadnezzar to overwhelm Judah, it still seems clear according to the prophet that the Lord did nothing to stop him because the “vineyard” that was Jerusalem did not produce the tasty “grapes” the Lord had intended.

Whether we believe that the Lord will guide and direct men with evil intent or whether we believe that “the devil made ‘em do it” is not nearly as important as it is to understand that when we fall, we fall according to our own neglect or our own actions. It is unfair to “blame” the Lord, and it is unreasonable to blame the evil one unless we are willing to admit that the devil has more influence over our lives than he should. It is that cursed and, at the same time, blessed free will that keeps getting in the way whenever we refuse to own up to our part in our own calamity.

While we may not be physically driven from this land, I cannot help but to wonder sometimes what the political landscape will look like once the Congress, the president, and Wall Street get done with this recovery/bail out proposal. Think about this: the people of Judah lost all that was dear to them, but how much of what they lost really mattered? Many right here in the US have lost, or are about to lose, much or all of what is nearest and dearest to them, but how much of what is at risk has real and lasting value? We reason that it is the Wall Street “fat cats” and their greed and/or incompetent government officials that have brought this country to the brink of financial ruin, but that would not be entirely true or fair.

And of course, Americans’ favorite pastimes, besides baseball, are griping about the Congress or the president and spending money we don’t actually have in a vain effort to either “keep up with the Joneses” or exercise our “right” to the so-called “American Dream”. Politicians are easy to blame because just about anyone will agree with us if we gripe! We get no argument; in fact, we probably are more apt to get more ammo to use when we talk to someone else about how this president or this Congress or those Wall Street “fat cats” have ruined our lives and threatened our way of life. And we do all this while still refusing to consider what we might have been able to do for ourselves to avert this potential disaster.

Lest you think otherwise, there is no subtle or implicit political endorsement coming from me. Not here, not now. Because in spite of the political landscape surrounding Judah before, during, and after the Exile, there are still the people being forced to evaluate life’s list of priorities, just as here and now – if we can get past the “blame game”. We may be able to appease ourselves and salve our own consciences by blaming someone else, but we – like the people of Judah – cannot escape our own free will decisions to shoot ourselves in the foot and – as a people – turn our backs on the Lord’s unmerited favor.

Jesus is even more pointed when He points out to His disciples in clear language that the Lord God will not arbitrarily pull from His faithful that which He intended without cause. The Lord will not merely wake up in a foul mood one day; He is, instead, provoked. The principle is no different than what you or I may choose to do with a mutual fund or a financial manager that is not performing up to standard. We would jerk our support and our money and put it where it would do some good according to our priorities.

It is not always easy for us to admit our mistakes. Being the prideful animals we are, we would rather believe ourselves to be clever, smart, and savvy. The reality is often another matter especially if we are so inwardly focused as to dismiss the ideal of the Lord’s glory. And the glory of the Lord is His vineyard. Then it was Israel; now it is our hearts. How will our priorities produce the good, sweet grapes of the Lord’s planting?

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