Don’t shoot the messenger

To the Jewish leaders who opposed him, Jesus once told a parable about tenant farmers who were working a vineyard (Matt 21:33-46). At harvest time, as per the usual agreement, the owner of the vineyard sent servants to collect his share of the crop. But the wicked tenants beat some of the servants and murdered others. The landowner tried again, but with the same sorry result. As a last resort, the landowner sent his own son — but he too was thrown out and then killed.

Jesus then posed the question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” (vs. 40). The answer is as obvious as it is ominous: destroy them, and find new tenants who will do what’s right (vs. 41).

Needless to say, his opponents didn’t care much for the story, for they knew he was accusing them of faithlessness and corruption. But they were too scared to do much about it: the crowds believed Jesus to be a prophet, even if they themselves did not.

Bottom line? Don’t shoot the messenger — unless you want to reckon with the one who sent him.

At some level, the Gentile believers in Corinth would have understood this. There were Romans who carried the delegated authority of the empire; you would no more dare to disrespect them than you would thumb your nose directly at Caesar. And the Jewish believers would have understood as well: Jesus’ parable was about how the people had repeatedly spurned God’s prophets, and even the very Son of God.

It’s against such a backdrop, and in the context of defending his apostleship, that Paul makes a challenging claim: he is ambassador and prophet, the very mouthpiece of God. He writes:

God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:19-20, CEB)

As we saw in the previous post, reconciliation is the great gospel theme that is the center of Paul’s message; in the next post, we’ll consider the practical implication, in which he urges the Corinthians to be reconciled to God.

But here, Paul lays bare the real reason that the Corinthians’ doubts about him are so problematic: he has been sent to them as God’s ambassador, and in their behavior toward Paul they are in danger of spurning God and the gospel.

He even quotes Isaiah 49:8, reminding them of the word of comfort that God delivered to his people in exile:

Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation. Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:1-2, CEB)

In so doing, he takes up Isaiah’s mantle: The ancient promise of a day of salvation and restoration is here. Today is the day; the time is now! God has entrusted me with that message, and I’m giving it to you again. You’ve already received God’s grace through the gospel; don’t let it all go to waste!

I wonder if, like the Corinthians, we might sometimes be too smug and comfortable in our judgment of those who are supposedly ministers of the gospel. True, there are false teachers and hucksters in our day just as there were in Paul’s, and we should be wise and discerning.

But not arrogant. For who knows when God might send us a messenger who doesn’t seem to meet our social standards? We might have to put down our pea-shooters, and listen humbly for the voice of God.