Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 4, 2020
Year A, Psalm 19; Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
This parable begins with a landowner who plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress in it, builds a watchtower, entrusts that watchtower, that vineyard, that winepress to tenants, and departs until it is time to collect his produce harvest time. And when that time comes, he sends his servants, his slaves for his share. The tenants seize the servants and kill them. He sends a second group, more than the first. Then tenants kill them, rather than give the landowner what belongs to him. Finally, the landowner sends his son to deal with the tenants. But by then, they have decided that they can have the son’s inheritance if he is out of the way; and, they kill him too.
The arrangement between a long-distance landlord and tenant farmers would have been familiar to people in Roman-occupied Palestine. But the violence toward the servants and the son would have violated all kinds of first-century expectations about working arrangements and understandings of how to treat each other. So, it is little surprise that the listening crowd calls for retribution when Jesus asks them how the landlord should respond. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
We might wonder with them, what else could be in store for these people, who have taken total leave of all their good sense, who have mistaken stewardship for entitlement, and who have exhibited such disregard and hostility towards those around them. In fact, we might question how the story makes sense at all. Who would think he could kill a stranger to win an inheritance to which he has no claim?
Here we have this strange tale, a parable, which means the storyline points to a greater bottom line. It is the third one Jesus offers the temple leaders who question his authority. In the first, he responds with a question. In the second, he shares a parable about two sons. And finally, he tells this one about the landowner and tenants. Jesus has something to say to the temple leaders about who – and whose – he is; who he belongs to and who his authority is.
Instead of ending the story with a miserable death, a new lease, and more cooperative renters, as the crowd suggests, Jesus recalls Isaiah’s description of a vineyard and a new cornerstone. In that vineyard – the kingdom of God – that will be tended by those whose relationships are faithfully ordered. Those tenants, those faithful will produce the fruits of the Kingdom, and the cornerstone will remain, impervious to what falls against it.
By now, the chief priests and Pharisees have realized that the parable is for their benefit, and they are furious. It takes an awful lot of courage to shake a finger and look in the mirror at your own reflection. It takes an awful lot of courage to admit to the ways their practice and their priorities had diverged from the care of God’s people and that was more than chief priests and Pharisees could stand. Because they were responsible for the care of God’s people. But, they got confused and thought they were entitled to what they were asked only to tend. They were taking on the role of God – somewhere along the way they stopped pointing to God and began pointing to themselves.
It is easy to condemn them for their disordered priorities, but here is the thing: we heard last week they still belonged to God, they’re stilling getting into the kingdom, just like the tenants the landlord trusted to tend the vineyard. The tenants – they were not known vandals or interlopers who jumped a fence. They were people who lost their perspective and confused stewardship with ownership.
It is so easy, really, to judge them for that. Unfortunately, it’s also painfully easy to relate to them in it. The problem was all they did real harm in the process. How do we lose sight of our priorities and our relationship with God? I bet we can all name ways as individuals, as communities, as a church, as a human community we have forgotten what belongs to God (everything), and who is beloved and called to sacred work (all of us). Our loss of perspective and the injury, the hurt, the harm, the pain that accompanies those feelings require, indeed demand, that we look in the mirror, shake a finger at our reflection and do something about what we see.
When pain and exhaustion in that reflection wear us thin, it can help to look at the things that help us see God around us and in each other. Since March of 2020, many churches, around the world, across the cross, in our own diocese, have stepped forward to do even more to help those in need. Some have provided care for the children of essential workers. Others, including our own Emmanuel’s Table and the Open Door Food Pantry in Mount Jackson, continue to expand their feeding ministries. All around us, people are pointing to God by building a beloved community and making life better for each other.
In reflecting on this parable, I have to think about how the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst violence that we as humans can inflict, comes back and tells his disciples to take the Good News of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. “Take the Good News of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”
Our work is to tend the vineyard, anyway. When it feels hard to adapt, we can take heart that we are building on the cornerstone. It is true that there is change all around us. And, also, all of human history has seen change, God has been making it – and us – new since the beginning. New wineskins as the scripture say.
We have another chance to answer God’s call to wholeness. Much of its course depends on whether we are serious about pointing to God even as we go about our ordinary business, when pointing means we let go of what we are used to and let go of our grip on the outcome in order to refocus our perspective. We cannot afford not to answer God’s call; so, we have big work to do as God’s beloved. Every small thing we do makes a difference.
Together, our small acts build big courage…the kind of courage it takes to risk what we think we cannot afford to lose for the thing we really need – we cannot sell ourselves short of God’s promise, and to demand that same glory and abundance and safety for our neighbors.
We need to remind ourselves that even in this tragic parable, the Good News was brought to the people. Tragedy is part of the human world, but it is no match for God’s love, God’s life, God’s forgiveness, God’s peace.
In every moment, may we continue to bring the love of Jesus Christ forward to be heard, and nothing less is felt. May we live our lives in a way that our arms are full of the fruits of God’s Kingdom and our backs always rest against its cornerstone that God has built. Amen.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.