Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sermon, Proper 22A, Matthew 21:33-46

This sermon delivered while I was away at convention
The crucifixion trajectory begun in the gospel lesson last week continues today. Last week, if you remember, we heard the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees where they wanted to know by whose authority Jesus performed his deeds. This exchange directly followed Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his healing of the lame and blind.

Following that power exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, he told the parable of the two sons -- the first who was asked to go work in the vineyard, said no, but eventually went; and the second, who said yes but didn't go. This parable was used to show that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God ahead of the religious people.

And if the events of the last couple of days and his parable of the two sons weren't enough, Jesus continues talking and tells the parable of the wicked tenants -- which some sources refer to as the parable of the absentee landowner. In this parable we hear about a landowner leasing out his property and sending slaves at harvest time to collect his due. The slaves are beaten, killed and stoned, until, finally, the owner's son shows up and he also is killed.

Jesus asks the question, "What will the landowner do to the tenants?" The people respond, "He will kill them and lease the vineyard to others who will give the landowner his due." Whereupon Jesus responds, "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to others."

Is there anyone here who doesn't recognize this as an attack on the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the day? The problem with that understanding in today's world is that some people apply this parable strictly to the Jews. God has seen what they have done (or, maybe more to the point, what they haven't done) and will strip them of their status as God's chosen people. God will then bestow that title on another group of people -- the Gentiles, and specifically the Christians.

Not only is this something God will do, but the Jewish people and religious leaders have agreed when they condemned themselves in the sight of Jesus. "The landowner will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants . . ." Jesus points out that they are the original tenants and that the new tenants are those who accept him and work for the kingdom of God.

Jesus is playing the role of Nathan here. Nathan was the prophet who confronted King David over Bathsheba. A poor man had a single ewe and he loved it as a family member. A rich man had many flocks, but when company came, he took the poor man's single ewe to butcher. Upon hearing this, King David was outraged and said that the rich man would pay dearly for this act. To which Nathan replied, "You are that man."

Jesus has set up this story in such a way that the leaders unintentionally condemn themselves. And some people use this to continue condemning the Jewish people. The end of this passage states, "They wanted to arrest him . . ." From here on, it seems as if the Pharisees were out to get Jesus. Combine that desire, with their self-condemnation, with Jesus' statements about giving the kingdom of God to others, and you have a recipe for some people labeling the Jews as Christ killers.

But this parable is not about the revocation of the Jews as God's chosen people. The parable isn't about laying blame on the Jews for killing Christ. And the parable is not about the difference between Jews and Christians. We need to remember that Matthew was, in all likelihood, written for a primarily Jewish congregation; a Jewish congregation that experienced Jesus different from the religious leaders.

This parable has two points of emphasis. The first point is about restoration. Ever since the Fall, God has been trying to bring us, his people, back into a healthy and loving relationship with him. He clothed Adam & Eve. He protected Cain. He made a promise after the flood. He blessed Abraham. And he sent prophets and sages over and over again in an attempt to call us home. Eventually he sent his only Son to redeem us from sin and death and to make us heirs of everlasting life.

And in the grand scheme of things, we don't have all that much to do. God planted the vineyard. God built the fence around it. God dug the wine press and God built the tower. All we have to do is harvest the fruit. All we have to do is remember that God created everything and that we give back to him from his own creation. So we go and work in the vineyard knowing that God's burden is light and knowing that our sole purpose is to help God restore the relationship that was broken so long ago.

And the second point is not about who will be cast out, but who will do the work of the landowner -- or of God and the kingdom. God set everything up for the benefit of the workers. All they had to do was to care for and preserve what was given. But they didn't.

Instead they came to see the vineyard as their own. After all, the owner was never around -- away in a far off country. But by seeing it as their own, they forgot, or neglected, to see the value of sharing the fruits of their labor with those around them. They were like the day laborers who earned the same wage as those who worked for an hour in that they couldn't see that God's grace extends to all, or that God desires everyone to be part of the kingdom.

If the people of the vineyard are not willing to do God's work, or if they are not willing to see God's desire for full inclusion, or if they come to think of God's gift as purely their own, then God will look for someone else who will work to bring everyone into God's kingdom.

This parable is about us as much as it is about the Jewish Pharisees whom Jesus addressed. Can we hear it that way? Can we hear it addressed to us? And are we willing to do the work of the kingdom while recognizing that none of this is ours but that it is all God's?

Let us not lose the kingdom of heaven through a selfish belief that we are more special than other people; because in God's eyes, everyone is special.


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