Are you hedging your bets? Paul, in Philippians, imprisoned, perhaps awaiting death by judicial decree, is all in. Throughout the letter, joyous in tone and content, Paul is clear that the life he has chosen as a follower of Jesus is not a life that that he lives with reservations or qualms. Paul will play the hand he has been dealt, which means accepting his cards not as whim or fortune, but as providential. Towards the end of the letter, after his exhortation to the Philippians to both grow in holiness and stay the course, he draws out the implications of trusting in God’s providential plan:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
This call to “have no anxiety” has, I would suggest, been learned by hard experience in his life as a Christian. In 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of Paul’s letters, he speaks of unwanted separation from the Church in Thessalonica as something he could “bear no longer” (3:1, 5). This letter to Philippi, some eight years later, indicates hard lessons learned. As a Christian, his experience of separation from those he loves as a Roman prisoner, he now understands as a part of God’s plan, one he must accept joyously, for this plan transcends human reason. This is “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” This peace, Paul says, comes when one focuses on
whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.
It is this inability to focus on God’s providential plan, and the peace that derives from it, that leads to disaster in the two Vineyard parables, one from Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-43. In Isaiah, God says,
judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? Now, I will let you know
what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!
The Vineyard refuses to be what it was intended to be, fruitful and productive, and so the hedge which protected it is broken down. Jesus’ parable is even more direct about the willful disobedience of humans to God’s plan and intentions.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
In this case the tenants of the Vineyard decide to kill first the servants of the owner and then the son of the owner in order to take possession of the Vineyard for themselves.Their scheming, however, ends in destruction for them and their ill-hatched plan: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
In the parables the rejection of God’s plans seems plainly and obviously malevolent, but the insertion of the passage from Philippians between the Isaian and Matthean parables in the lectionary readings indicates something else: it is not always maliciousness which causes us to turn away from God, but fear that his plans are not the best plans for us. And so we are anxious, scared, and worried; instead of going all in, we hedge our bets, hoping that if trust in God does not work out, perhaps there is some other plan of our own that could pay off. Paul’s passage enjoins us to stay the course: no matter what our situation, no matter how it seems things are about to turn out, focus on what is true, honorable and excellent. As Paul says a few verses later regarding his situation, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). So keep your chips on the table (and that poker face).
John W. Martens
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