Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:33-46

[Jesus said] “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 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.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

In the historically Black churches there is an expression that is frequently used that confused me. When they would pray for someone, they would ask God to “place a hedge of protection around them.” 

So one time when I was preaching at a predominately Black AME Church I asked the pastor, who I had been working with at Maryhaven Addiction Recovery Center, why that expression he explained to me that that phrase comes from this passage. See the vineyard grows, flourishes, is safe, not because of its own strength, but because a protective wall or hedge has been placed around it. Without that protection, the vineyard is devoured and trampled down. Whatever blessings we may have are not just because we are a “good grape” but also because we are a protected grape. We are protected with a purpose. The hedge is in place, not to keep the vineyard looking pretty or to preserve it as a brunch spot suitable for weddings, concerts, and social gatherings like a many of our modern vineyards. That hedge is in place to protect the good grapes until they can be chosen and pressed and made into the wine that is shared, given away, at the planter’s banquet. We are cared for today so that we can be of service tomorrow. That’s God’s globally reaching and all-encompassing love. It’s also, to this rural Ohio boy, really good agriculture. Although it’s not a phrase I use regularly when praying, I’ve thought about it a lot this week.

The passage in Isaiah starts off with the same language and what at first appears to be a similar metaphor to this week’s Matthew passage. We again meet a landowner who plants a vineyard with unexpected results. But in Isaiah, it’s the grapes that go bad, not the tenants. For those who are not wine aficionados, wild grapes that grow in the field are one step above weeds. Some wild grapes are even poisonous. Their pollen corrupts any intentionally planted grapes in the vineyard as well, meaning that the entire vineyard needs to be ripped up and replanted before any grapes can be grown that will make a tasty wine.

In both Matthew and Isaiah, God mourns because the gifts given to beloved people, instead of responding with generosity and gratitude and paying forward the gifts with obedience and respect, are met with violence and selfishness and disobedience. God looks for a delightful glass of wine, something both pleasing in daily life and of significance in spiritual life but sees bloodshed instead of justice and a cry instead of righteousness. 

What God wanted in both scenarios was justice and righteousness and obedience which consists of giving back to God that which we are called to tend. We are called to care, not just for ourselves and our immediate circle, but for strangers, visitors, neighbors, and anyone else who God brings us to with opportunity and an ask. 

There are a lot of different directions you can go in just the parable itself. 

  • We could discuss the basic structure and arc of the story: there are tenants who kill everyone who comes to get the harvest of the vineyard, even the son of the landowner. 
  • We could remark on the overt resonances it shares with Isaiah 5, another passage about a vineyard; though Isaiah is much more interested in the destruction of the vineyard itself (i.e. Israel) than those who go to the vineyard to collect its harvest. 
  • Then there’s the way that each character in our parable is matched up with figures in the ancient world: the slaves likely stand in for the various prophets throughout Israel’s history, Jesus himself is more easily recognizable as the son of the landowner, and the tenants are the notorious Pharisees and chief priests.

But one part of this story that is worth noticing and lingering on is the simple fact that Jesus does not finish his own parable. 

Jesus sets up an entire story without an ending. Instead, he ends his parable by asking a question to his listeners, those chief priests and Pharisees. Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

Filled with a great sense of justice and a dash of vengeance, the listeners answer Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Interestingly, Jesus neither confirms nor contradicts their answer.

But soon, after some further explanation by Jesus, it dawns on those chief priests and Pharisees: 

  • Are we those violent tenants? 
  • Is he talking about us? Have we rejected—and killed—the slaves and sons of the landowner? 
  • Is he blaming us for the rejection of Israel’s prophets? 

And in their violent and vindictive answer, the chief priests and the Pharisees indict themselves. They name the punishment they would give their own behavior. And it is a harsh one.

The issue at hand is their rejection of the prophets of the Lord. And ultimately, their rejection of the Lord’s son. Because as we know, their rejection, matched with the Roman authorities’ power to execute, will lead to Jesus’ actual death. That they have rejected Jesus does not exist solely on the plane of parables, but also on the very real hill at Calvary.

This parable from Matthew is a challenging one to read, filled with violence and a blatant lack of respect for human life. 

Injury is done without cause, and even without lasting benefit, out of short-sighted and impulsive selfishness by the tenants who have fallen into a deeply sinful trap; the trap of privilege. 

  • The tenants have possession of the land. 
  • The tenants have wealth and resource. 
  • The tenants have many signs of success and power, in a capitalist view. 
  • The tenants make some key mistakes however, not just in their actions, but in their thinking. 
  • The tenants mistake possession with ownership and gifts of generosity with entitlement. 

This parable may cause us to ask:

  • How do we look at the distribution of our resources without the concept of ownership? 
  • How do we share the fruits of our land and labor without assuming we own something simply because our hands grew it, understanding giving is not the same as giving back
  • How do we address sharing as an essential practice to protect us from the dangerous tendency to hoard? 

There are even deeper, more risk-taking and soul-bearing questions to answer, frightening because they ask us to look inside ourselves. 

  • Do we have any hidden places in our hearts where we blame people who don’t have the same privileges as us? 
  • Do we look at people with less resource as less than? 

The challenge of this passage is to reframe our own vision and see neighbors experiencing hunger as visitors in a space we might just as easily occupy but for privilege that is likely some combination of effort and simple luck; some ancestor being in the right place at the right time. What if the land, like the vineyard in this parable, is actually by right owned by the hungry visitor, titled to them as inheritance, in this life or the next? 

That challenges our sense of accomplishment or comfort with any self-satisfaction we may have, doesn’t it? Particularly as Americans, we are almost all living on borrowed (or stolen) land. That places a humbling check into any entitlement we might otherwise carry.

If we can get past all of that we may be thinking: What is it to us? So what? Some chief priests and Pharisees two thousand years ago rejected Jesus as the son of God… what might that have to do with us?

That Jesus was rejected by those he came to save is evident in our lives, too. We cannot be too quick to distance ourselves from those who were unable to see Jesus for who he was in that time and age; they are us, and we are them. Their rejection of Jesus is our own inevitable participation in Good Friday, our own complicity in the death-dealing forces of this world, our own inability to see before us the son of God. This is where the parable threatens to shatter us.

  • That we take part in big and small ways in the death of Jesus should be no surprise; in our neglect of the poor, our dismissal of the outcast, our apathy toward the immigrant, we do our part in rejecting Jesus. 
  • That we so quickly pick and choose the teachings of Jesus we’d like to follow and those we wouldn’t is our participation in his rejection. 
  • That we judge the sins of others but refuse to see our own is how we continue to reject the grace and forgiveness offered in the person of Jesus. 
  • That we sing praises of his name and then shout, “Crucify him!” as part of the angry crowd is our rejection of our Lord.

But again, we’ll do well to remember that Jesus does not finish the parable in our text. What he does offer is a quotation from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

That Jesus still came and comes to those he knew would reject him may be the most vibrant and wondrous gem of them all. That he would willingly give himself over to the authorities and principalities and walk through the door of death is the luminous truth we are called to behold today. Despite our rejection and complicity and failings and judgments and violent ways and self-wielding indictments—despite all of ourselves—Jesus comes to us. And he is for us. And with us.

Jesus will ultimately finish his parable when he bursts through the tomb of death. He will finish the parable when he rises from the grave. You see, the answer to the question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” is found in the resurrection of Jesus. The answer to this parable’s question is grace upon grace for all who have rejected him. It is forgiveness. It is new life. It is always another chance.

In the end, you see, this parable isn’t about wicked tenants… or Pharisees… or Matthew’s community… or even us. It’s rather about God. God the one who entrusted us with all good things, blessing us beyond the dreams of our grandparents. God the one who, even when disappointed by what we do with those blessings, yet comes to us in love. God the one who weeps over the injustices of the world, embraces those who fall short, and promises to never, ever give up on anyone. Not those tenants. Not Matthew with his penchant for violent rhetoric. Not even us, when we refuse to recognize others – all others! – as God’s beloved children and instead view them as competitors or threats.

Setting the parable free, for even just a moment or two, from its original context invites us to ask a more personal question: What will we do? 

  • Will we hoard our blessings or share them?
  • Will we embrace those in need or shun them?
  • Will we use our privilege to work for greater equity and justice for others or to secure our own future? 
  • Will we, finally, reach out to the Christ we perceive in our neighbor or only come to worship the Christ of the stained glass that adorn our comfortable churches?

I’m not saying this is a matter of our souls, but rather of the quality and character of our lives as Christians. Because now that we know ourselves to be those God loves unabashedly and shamelessly—now that we know ourselves, that is, to be the ones for whom God risked everything—we are free to live with hope, courage, and generosity. 

  • Having been healed, that is, we can now offer to heal others. 
  • Having been reconciled, we can be instruments of reconciliation. 
  • Having tasted the mercy of God’s justice, we can risk ourselves in working for greater justice for others. 
  • And having been blessed beyond measure, we can be a blessing to those around us.