When Pastor Susan and I are working out the preaching schedule, we don’t look at the lessons. The schedule is determined by more practical things such as who is in town, what committees are meeting, when I have a class project due, when is James out to sea. But never have we looked at the lessons when deciding who is going to preach on which day, because I assure you, if we had, I would have avoided today.
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. I’m fairly certain he had this Gospel lesson in mind. Yowzer.
There is a vineyard owner and wicked tenants. Really wicked. They refuse to pay their rent. They kill servant upon servant. They even go so far as to kill the vineyard owner’s son…all in order to avoid writing that grapey check! Seems a little extreme doesn’t it? Everyone in this story is crazy! The tenants are crazy. Who goes about the business of murder…and over and over again…just to avoid paying the rent? The landowner is crazy…he sends servants, then more servants, and then rather than involving the police or the mob or an army, he sends his son. Alone. What did the landowner expect? And the son…who goes alone into the midst of these crazy people. Surely, he’s a little crazy, too. Walking right into his own death like that. Just because his father asked him to. (Can you imagine that dinner conversation? “Son, when you’ve finished your daily chores, I have one more little job for you today…see, I have these renters…”)
We can look at this Gospel lesson as allegory, for in Matthew’s time, it would certainly have been so. The vineyard owner is God, the servants are all the prophets (Micah, Amos, Isaiah, just to name a few), the son is Jesus. We are the tenants. Wait.
In Matthew’s time, the people who listened to this parable would have understood that the tenants were actually the house of Israel. And that the temple had been destroyed (this was written 70 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth, remember?) And while this is important to understanding our Christian tradition throughout the ages, as my Goddaddy reminded me this week, “Church is not primarily a history lesson.”
So maybe allegory is not the most helpful way to look at this passage.
Here’s where Luther’s squeezing, squashing, and wringing of the passage comes into play, in this day and age, what the heck does this parable have to do with us?
Let’s look carefully at verses 45 and 43.
Verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”
Is Jesus talking about us? The chief priests and the Pharisees were the pious and the religious leaders of their time…they dutifully read the scriptures and attended worship and made sacrifices in “the proper way”…and they were absolutely convinced that their way of living was the right one. That they had the rulebook and that it was their job to condemn anyone who didn’t play by their rules.
Are we the Pharisees? Heh. She smokes. He’s a drunk. I heard that she tried to kill herself. He’s such a wreck he can’t pay his bills…and he sure doesn’t tithe 10%. She goes to church, but I know she swears like a sailor in the bar on Saturday night. The altar cloth is on backwards…again. Ugh, he’s so fat…glutton. I think he’s gay. She doesn’t look like, sound like, think like us. What are they doing here?
Verse 43: “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.” This parable isn’t about authority. It isn’t about who’s in charge. Is God in charge? Or have we decided that we are the ones holding the reigns? No, it’s not about who holds the authority. This parable is about our willingness to act in a way that bears good fruit and our willingness to repent (to return to regret to apologize) when we’ve screwed it up.
And we do screw it up quite regularly don’t we? If our job is to bear good fruit, if we are the people responsible for proclaiming that Jesus is the truth, if we are to stand at the corner of justice and mercy and our call is to be humble and loving while we stand there saying “Jesus is Lord, follow his life and his teachings and his example” and we are to do this selflessly with no judgment for our neighbors, with no condemnation in our hearts, with no regard for the “me first!” attitude of our nation, our religion, our economic marketplace or for the state of the altar cloths…if we are to be about the business of bearing good fruit, if that is our job, we are screwing it up. All. the. time.
Do we hear the word and respond? Or do we hear the word and try to figure out how it’s not speaking to us? Or how we are already “doing okay by the Gospel.” When did “okay” become the standard ?
Theologian Karoline Lewis asks, “Are we willing to say, first person and all, that God has entrusted the Kingdom of God to our tending while admitting that our perception of the importance of God’s realm lacks the magnitude and holiness that God demands and deserves?” In other words, are we willing to admit that God has entrusted the nurture and care of God’s kingdom to us. We who are chronically trying to underplay the importance of the job with which we have been tasked and who dismiss the greatness and goodness of our Creator?
We are the Pharisees. We are the tenants in this parable. We have been given this tremendous gift which is the kingdom of God, and we have been charged with its keeping. Are we…are you…am I…bearing good fruit?
How are we taking care of the vineyard into which God has invited us? For if the vineyard is the Kingdom of God, that care is revealed in the ways in which we bear with one another. It is manifested in the ways we value the gifts we have been given…do we value them enough to share them with the world? It is expressed in the ways we deal with the stranger…the one who appears in our midst and begs welcome.
Are we doing the work? Are we using God’s rulebook or our own? Are we about the business of welcome or exclusion? Are we proclaiming Good News or are we keeping it for ourselves and for those whom we deem worthy.
Are we bearing good fruit?