Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 5, 2014
+May the gentle Christ speak through us, the creative God expand our lives unexpectedly, and the Holy Spirit write the Gospel in our hearts every day. Amen.
Even the vineyard owner’s son is killed by the tenants. Doesn’t that seem very strange? What was the owner thinking? Why didn’t he send an army out to deal with the wicked tenants from the get go? Seriously?
OK. Let’s back up a bit. When the religious authorities challenged Jesus, he often responded to their tests with a parable. This one begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner established a vineyard complete with a fence, a winepress, and even a watchtower. He then became an absentee landowner, returning to his own country as often happened in the far-flung territories of the Roman Empire. Tenants were in charge of overseeing the yield of the vineyard and paying their rent to the owner at harvest time, in the form of a share of the produce.
Business was working as usual until the owner’s slaves arrived to collect his share of the crop. The tenants attacked them, beating one and killing another. The owner of the vineyard then sent another deputation to collect the rent. Those slaves were treated even worse than the first. You’d think by now the owner would send in throngs or some form of armed enforcement. Instead he sends his son, thinking by some odd reasoning that the brutes who have abused two delegations of slaves will respect the owner’s heir. That seems awfully inane and in similar foolishness the tenants reason that if they kill the son, they will get his inheritance.
Then comes the punch line. Jesus asks his audience, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The answer is obvious, and his audience offers it: “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”
The chief priests and Pharisees probably see themselves as the landowner. They would actually own land and have others manage it for them while they were busy with their administrative tasks in Jerusalem. They would see the servants as their subordinates and themselves as the real victims of the unscrupulous tenants, and they would be ready and willing to pronounce judgment on them.
Typically, people have tended to read this parable seeing God as the landowner and the temple leaders as the evil tenants who are swindling God of the rightful fruits of God’s covenant with Israel. In this allegory, the groups of servants are Israel’s prophets and Jesus is the son. Christians are the “other tenants” to whom the “vineyard” will be given after it is taken from the Jerusalem leaders who have not managed it well. In Hebrew Scriptures, the vineyard was frequently used to symbolize God’s Covenant people and we see that in the reading from Isaiah.
From Matthew’s perspective, this parable is as a tale of salvation history depicting Jesus, who would be crucified outside of Jerusalem, as the son who is killed outside of the vineyard, and that interpretation has been used as fodder to fuel Christianity’s mean-spirited and uncalled for bias against Judaism. That is not the message that Jesus intends here. Jesus is not pronouncing judgment. We find the twist in his refusal to affirm that the Temple authorities are correct in their assessment of what the owner of the vineyard will do to the tenants when he comes.
This parable is about how God behaves, not the way we do. The Pharisees answer really makes a lot of sense to us: put the wretches to a miserable death and lease the land to others. Jesus changes the entire focus of this discussion. He quotes from Psalm 118: The stone the builders rejected.” God’s son is rejected and crucified and yet God does not exact vengeance or smite and kill and give the wicked tenants what they deserve. This God doles out mercy. This God gives love and eternal life. God doesn’t act like the Pharisees. God doesn’t act like us when we are rejected. God acts like God.
What Jesus is railing against here is how the Pharisees and, yes, how religious leaders even today have perceived God in their image, made God into someone who acts like humans at their worst, made God to be an oppressive and exclusive landowner and have, essentially, masked the true face of God.
This exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is set in Jerusalem near the end of Jesus’ ministry. This final section of the Gospel gazes at the church that will carry on his witness to God’s reign after his death and resurrection. Jesus is also addressing us in this Gospel.
The issue is no longer the old “vineyard,” but rather a totally new structure of which Jesus himself is the “cornerstone.” That structure is God’s reign which Jesus has been proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry and which the church continues to proclaim in his name. We are the new vineyard.
That should give us pause. What kind of yield do we produce? Have we taken down the fences that keep others out and do we use our watchtowers to wait diligently in anticipation for those not yet here? Do we recognize the fruit of God’s working in our lives that cannot help but impact our dealings with those outside this community? Where are our hearts? Especially as we move into this season of discerning how we will support the life, mission, and ministry of this church?
If, indeed, we are the stewards of this sacred tradition and holy heritage, will we remember that such gifts do not exist for ourselves, but for all of God’s people?
God has entrusted us with this sacred place. We are God’s tenants. We really can’t ignore the ominous admonition that, when those who manage the vineyard become obstacles to giving back to God the abundant return that is due—God will find new workers.
In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard stretches our understanding of this: “God needs nothing, asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is life with God that demands these things.” And it is a life at work in the vineyard that asks these things of us.