Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)
Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees. Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life. They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.
In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath. It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it. (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).
The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show. The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.
Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings. He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom. Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it. What does that mean?
First, it means repentance. In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way. Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.
(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).
Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:22-26)
In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes. Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.
The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In an editorial in the Washington Post, researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.
What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:
The suicidal. Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides. We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade. I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors. It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years. But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.
Young men in drug and gang subcultures. They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths. This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides. The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community. How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power? What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?
Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women. Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore. Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart. How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?
It’s easier to build a fence. It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.
But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom. Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12)