Sunday, October 05, 2014

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

Today's passage follows directly on the heels of last weeks' passage.  Remember that Jesus is now in Jerusalem during the final days before his crucifixion.  While there, he continually confronts and antagonizes the Pharisees and religious leaders.

He does this because he sees the problems of Judaism and, like any good prophet, calls the religious leaders to task.  He sees the leaders too focused on condemning the unrighteous and barring certain people from access to God in a vain attempt at maintaining their religious purity.  He sees leaders so focused on doctrine that they either miss seeing God's grace or resent the fact that others have equal access (remember the parable of the generous landowner?).  And he sees a religious leadership that has sold their soul to climb in bed with political leaders while maintaining the facade that they are separate.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Once again Jesus tries to get the religious leaders to see things the same way God sees things.

But there is a problem with this particular passage, and that is that it has been, and still is in some settings, read with antisemitic overtones.

There was a landowner – God who planted – created a vineyard – Israel
And leased it to tenants – religious/political leaders
The tenants refused to give the landowner what was his, so he sent slaves to collect – God sent prophets
Who were beaten and killed
Finally he sent his son – Jesus who was also killed
The tenants were evicted and new tenants will take over – Gentiles

It's easy to see how this can be read with an antisemitic bent.  But that becomes problematic if we truly believe Scripture to be “the living word of God.”  The Bible is not a static record of history, but is God's word that can and does speak to us today.

And if it speaks to us today, then this parable isn't simply about those awful Jews who turned their backs on God, forcing God to reissue his blessing to the Gentiles.  This parable is also about us who, as adopted children of God and caretakers of his vineyard, must remember to act in ways consistent with grace and love so as not to be driven out.

St. John Chrysostom has my favorite commentary on this passage, and he points out a few things that we might tend to gloss over.  Note that it was through the sole efforts of the landowner that anything was created in the first place.  It was the landowner who planted the vineyard.  It was the landowner who installed the fencing.  It was the landowner who dug the wine press.  And it was the landowner who built the watchtower.  After doing all this, after creating a place to his own liking, he leased it out to tenants.

As St. John Chrysostom said, he left little for the tenants to do except to care for what was already there and to preserve what was given them.  But they made little effort to be productive.

They didn't care for what was given them, and they didn't work to preserve it, to ensure it would continue to produce.  They had no respect for the vineyard or for the landowner, and they treated both as disposable commodities.

But as I said, this is not simply a record of old stories.  This is the living word of God and it speaks to us today.

We are living in a land created by God.  We are tenants chosen by God to care for and preserve what he has created.  We are to work so that what grows in the vineyard nourishes not only us, but those on the other side of the fence as well.  And we are to remember all belongs to God and that from his abundant creation we present an offering of thanks, praise and abundance.

All of what I have mentioned so far can certainly apply to religion and church.  In the context of this passage and at this point in the story, Jesus is more forcefully arguing with the religious leaders that they are missing the point.  That fence around the vineyard isn't to keep people out; it's not a barrier.  Instead, the fence is a boundary that says, “Within this fence you will find beauty and abundance.”  The fence is there to show what God has to offer should we choose to enter through the gate.  It is not there to maintain the purity of the vineyard.

Jesus is here to welcome all people inside the fence – tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all kinds.  And this flies in the face of the religious gatekeepers and those more concerned with purity than with grace and love.  And if we ourselves are more focused on keeping the gate closed than open, protecting the vineyard's purity, then we are just like the religious leaders of Jesus' day.

But this parable can also have another meaning outside our church walls as well.  Instead of reflecting the religious institutions of Judaism and Christianity, this parable could also point to our care of the physical environment we find ourselves living in.

A landowner planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press, built a watchtower and leased it to tenants.  And the Lord God planted a garden where he put his people to care for it.

This earth and all that is in it – birds of the air, fish of the sea, animals of the land, creatures of every kind – is God's creation.  All that is, seen and unseen, was created out of God's abundant love.  And we are the caretakers of that creation.  We are the caretakers of earth, sea and sky.  We are the caretakers of the birds, fish and creatures of every kind.

God created all of this abundance out of his abundant love.  It is our duty and obligation to care for this creation, to share with others from the abundant harvest, and return to God from that which he has given us a sacrifice of abundant thanks and praise.

Because if we don't treat this creation as God's creation, if we treat it as nothing more than a disposable commodity that is only here for us, then, like the parable says, we will be put to a miserable death.

That death, however, won't be at the hands of God; it will be the result of our own handiwork.

Theologically and physically speaking, this parable reminds us that we are but caretakers of what God has given us for the benefit of all.

On this day when we welcome and bless the many and varied creatures of God, let us remember that we should be as quick to welcome and bless those people who wish to be part of God's vineyard; and let us remember that it is our responsibility to care for what God has created on behalf of those creatures who depend on us for their well-being.  Amen.


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