“I Am the Greatest”
October 04, 2020*
By Pastor John Partridge
Matthew 21:33-46 Philippians 3:4b-14
People who always think that they are right can be annoying but sometimes we need them. Although we’re likely to call them egotists, there are situations where it is good to think that you’re always right. Officers in combat don’t have the luxury of doubting themselves. They must be decisive.
General George Patton once said that, “All very successful commanders are prima donnas and must be so treated.” Patton himself was often accused of not only being a prima donna but of being egotistical and overconfident. He was so sure of himself that he once said, “I am a soldier, I fight where I am told, and I win where I fight.”
In combat, leaders have to believe that they are making good decisions so that they aren’t paralyzed by doubt. But, at the same time, if someone cannot recognize and admit when they were wrong, they become unable to learn, adapt, and move forward. We see many of those same characteristics in the Apostle Paul, but first, let’s begin with a parable that Jesus told in Matthew 21:33-46, about a powerful landowner and his relationship with the people who rented it from him. Jesus said…
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, people who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Jesus told this parable at least in part because the church leaders of his day, the chief priests and the Pharisees, were in the audience and his description could easily be understood to be a story about how Israel had treated God’s prophets as well as pointing to himself as God’s own son and how they would, ultimately treat him as well. But the point of the story was to tell the people, the leaders, the nation, and the church that God expects us to not only care for the things that he has given to us, but to give credit to him for giving us the gift, and to use them to produce fruit for the kingdom and not just to enrich ourselves. If we don’t use what we have been given to grow God’s kingdom then, Jesus says, God can easily take away the gifts that he has given to us, and give them to someone else that will.
That’s harsh. The chief priests and the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus was talking about, and they knew that he was talking about them. And they didn’t like it one bit.
In contrast, we can look at the Apostle Paul who, at one time, counted himself as one of the Pharisees and leaders of Israel. But, with God’s help, Paul had a change of heart and the explains what that change meant in Philippians 3:4b-14 where he says…
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith inChrist—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Do you remember the phrase, “Float like a butterfly sting like a Bee?” Muhammad Ali was known for his style of trash talk and self-promotion and Paul begins by using that same style of self-promotion. When Paul says, “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more,” he is saying the same thing that Ali did when he would say, “I am the greatest.” Paul is using that same style of self-promotion and the same egotistical, self-confidence that we saw in General Patton and other leaders, but with an important exception. Paul not only says why he is the greatest, he explains why. He explains that he was born in the right family, went to the right schools, had the best teachers, did all the right rituals, and he did them perfectly.
But he discovered that he was wrong.
On the road to Damascus, on one of his journeys to find arrest and torture, if necessary, Jews who had been deceived into following Jesus, Paul is confronted, and blinded by, the risen Jesus. And after that, Paul says, everything in which he once took pride, his pedigree, his education, his position, his importance, the rituals, and even his perfection, he now sees as being worth nothing… unless they are used to promote the cause of Jesus Christ and to grow God’s kingdom. Paul casts aside everything that he once thought was valuable, everything that he once intended for himself, and everything that he once built his life upon, because he is now pursuing something new, better, and truly perfect. He says that he has surrendered all the prizes that his old life once offered and now pursues only the prize that God intends for him.
Although Paul still has the same kind of egotism and self-confidence that he always had, he has taken to heart Jesus’ parable of the rich landowner. Paul realized that he was wrong, learned, adapted, and is now moving forward by working for God instead of against him. Paul realizes that the prize that God intends for his life must be far better, and far greater, than any prize that he might have ever intended for himself.
But will we learn the same lesson?
Are we willing to give up on our dreams, let go of the personal goals to which we have held so tightly, so that we can grab hold of the dreams and goals that God intends for us? Are we willing, as individuals, and as a church, to use what we have been given to grow God’s kingdom?
Or will we hold too tightly to the control, the power, the influence, the dreams, and the goals that we had in mind for ourselves, and risk that God will take it all away and give our gifts to someone else?
May we instead, forget what is behind us, strain toward what is ahead, and press on toward the prize for which God has called us through his Son Jesus Christ.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/4Umcv0D_pW4
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.