27th Sunday in Ordinary Time October 8, 2017
Mt. 21:33-46; Is. 5:1-7 Rev. Rona Kinsley
Inheriting the Kin-dom
In our reading from Matthew’s gospel,we hear yet another parable of the kingdom and another pronouncement of judgment. In an earlier sermon on this series of kingdom parables,I quoted the noted preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor,who said that “Matthew is really into judgment.” He puts a judgment spin on these stories that is missing from the versions found in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew definitely had an agenda. His gospel was written toward the end of the first century, C.E., for a community of Jewish Christians who were in conflict with, and, perhaps, persecuted by, the surrounding Jewish community. So it’s not surprising that Matthew targets the Jewish leaders— the chief priests and the Pharisees— in his version of the parables of Jesus.
The chief priests and elders, of the temple in Jerusalem, have questioned Jesus’ authority to teach there. Jesus responds with a parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard. The people listening to Jesus would immediately have recognized his reference to Isaiah’s “song of the vineyard,” which we heard in our Hebrew Scripture reading.
Now, in order to understand this story, it helps to have some sense of what vineyards meant to the Jewish people. Vineyards were a common sight in biblical times, and were both a sign and a symbol of agricultural wealth.Wine was an important commercial product, and Israel considered the vine and its fruits to be gifts of God. When vineyards flourished, the people felt blessed by God, and, when they failed, it was taken as a sign of God’s judgment. Israel itself was likened to a vine, planted and tended by God. This is the imagery Isaiah uses when he talks about the vineyard: For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.
It took a long time and a lot of work to grow a productive vineyard. Isaiah describes this work in some detail, and Jesus refers to it when he says that the landowner planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. When God has done all this work to establish and protect a “pleasant planting,” God expects a good harvest: [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Jesus builds on Isaiah’s imagery to condemn the failings of Israel in his own time. The landlord in his story is God, the vineyard stands for Israel, while the tenants are the Jewish leaders. It seems that from the very beginning, the tenants of the vineyard have failed to give the landowner the harvest of justice and mercy he expects. And when he sent his slaves—meaning the prophets— to remind the people of their obligation to the landowner, they were beaten, stoned, killed. Finally, the landowner sends his son— Jesus— thinking that surely the tenants will respect him. But it doesn’t turn out that way. Prefiguring his own death, Jesus tells us that the tenants seize the son, thinking that, if they can kill the heir, they can grab the inheritance.
At this point in the story, Jesus turns to the those who have challenged him and asks, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They respond, probably quite indignantly, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” And then— Gotcha! The chief priests and Pharisees realize that Jesus has been talking about them, and that they have just pronounced judgment on themselves!
Last week Judy Waible, the Deacons, Hal, the choir, and our liturgical dancers, led us in a wonderful celebration of World Communion Sunday. I have sometimes imagined World Communion taking place at a long, long communion table encircling the globe, something like the table in the hallway in the delightful video we watched last week. If it were possible to make this image a reality, the people who look like us— white Christians of European heritage— would be a relatively small percentage of those at the table. The church has grown by leaps and bounds in the developing world, particularly in Africa, while church membership in the developed countries of the west, has been in steady decline.
I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason for this is that our “first world” churches could be compared to the chief priests and the Pharisees in our gospel story. You see, the chief priests and elders were the religious establishment, the keepers of the tradition, much like our mainline churches today. They were comfortable in their privileged position, and tended to keep to the middle of the road, careful not to offend the country’s rulers or the people. The Pharisees were very much like today’s conservative and fundamentalist churches. They believed that the disasters that had befallen the people were evidence of God’s anger and judgment, and that the only way to avoid God’s punishment was to make sure that everyone obeyed every single bit of the law. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson displayed this kind of thinking when they said that 9/11 was God’s punishment of the United States for our moral laxity, and it seems that every major disaster since has generated a similar response from the Christian right.
Jesus took on both the chief priests and the Pharisees. He rebuked the chief priests for their hypocrisy, for being too comfortable with their privilege, and for not using their social position and wealth to promote justice for the poor and the oppressed. He rebuked the Pharisees for their legalism and self-righteousness, for losing sight of the fact that the highest law is the law of love and compassion, and for failing to understand that what is legally “right” is not always what is merciful. And I suspect that Jesus might level the very same criticisms at our churches today, calling to task the mainline churches for being too comfortable, too compromised by our wealth and social position, too worried about causing offense, to fully engage with the urgent justice concerns that face us right now, and the conservative churches for being too judgmental, too lacking in compassion for all who don’t sign onto their “accept our way or you’re going to hell” brand of Christianity, too focused on getting into heaven to care about those who are suffering on earth.
Jesus told the chief priests and the Pharisees, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Are we, in our first world churches, like the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ time,in danger of losing the kin-dom? Throughout the biblical record, we find, again and again, that the signs of the kin-dom— of God’s reign– are mercy, justice, and peace. Throughout his ministry, Jesus offended the religious leaders by freely offering God’s compassionate love and forgiveness— mercy. He offended the political leaders by calling them to account for their treatment of the poor and the oppressed— justice. And he offended those who wanted to go to war with Rome by proclaiming that God’s ways are the ways of peace. The thousands of people who welcomed Christ’s message came mostly from the margins of society, just as the men and women in third world countries, who welcome that message today, are on the margins of our global cultural and economic system. What might happen, in our struggling world, if all us who try to follow Jesus really started to pay attention to all the uncomfortable things he has to say about economic justice, about mercy and forgiveness— especially forgiving our enemies— and about promoting peace?
Let’s return to the image of a communion table that stretches all the way around the world. I’d like you to imagine that you have taken a seat at this table. Warm, yeasty smells rise from big baskets of bread placed all along the center of the table. There’s a cup in front of you, and jugs of wine and juice are making their way along each side. Everyone is talking, and laughing, and having a good time. Suddenly, someone taps you on the shoulder. You turn around and face the person who is standing there.
Now, imagine that this person makes you just about as uncomfortable as you can be. Maybe it’s a woman, from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, stumbling with fatigue and carrying a pitifully thin child, or a kid from Vietnam whose feet have been blown off by one of the thousands of unexploded bombs that have caused more than 40,000 deaths since the end of the Vietnam war. Maybe it’s a young man with a shaved head, a black leather jacket, and a silver swastika hanging from a chain around his neck. Maybe it’s a widow from Afghanistan, or a Muslim youth with a gun hanging across his back. Maybe it’s a bag lady with all her worldly goods in a shopping cart, or a member of an inner-city gang. And this person, this person who pushes all your discomfort buttons, asks you, “What’s happening here? Why are you all hanging out around this table?” What would you tell them?
Whatever we would tell this hypothetical person, it’s all about the kin-dom. It’s about what the kin-dom is, and where we belong in it, and whether the people we would most like not-to-have-to-deal-with also belong in it. It’s about what Christ’s table means, and whether there really is a place at the table for all God’s sons and daughters. Because what Jesus tells us, in this parable about the wicked tenants, is that the only way we can lose the kin-dom is to try to hang on to it while failing to yield the harvest the landowner expects. Are we in danger of losing the kin-dom? Only if we refuse to yield, and share, its fruits— a harvest of justice, mercy, and peace.