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Pentecost 18 October 8, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for October 8, 2017 | Pentecost 18
Matthew 21:33-46
In a radio address on October 1, 1939, Sir Winston Churchill, responded to a reporter’s question concerning the possible action Russia might take as England entered into conflict with Nazi Germany. Churchill said, “I cannot forecast the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Something similar could be said of this gospel reading from Matthew. Of course there is no reference to Russia but, in Matthew’s hands, there is an enigmatic quality that invites attention to the context in which the parable was spoken and then later revised in Matthew’s editing.
Let us recognize, first, that the parable, centered in a vineyard, is rooted in the experience of injustice visited upon peasant workers. The vineyard owner, who lived in a distant country, rented out the vineyard to laborers – too poor to own land – who worked the grapevines by paying a rental fee or a percentage of the crop to the owner. But there is more. Part of the crop also had to be used to gain the basic necessities of food, drink, cloth, footwear, tools, and rudimentary housing. And another part of the crop was tied up in religious and Roman imperial taxes. Taken together, the rental fee, basic necessities, and taxes would leave the vineyard workers living with the constant threat of hunger and grinding impoverishment while the owner lived with no worries, living in comfort, living off the hard labor of others.
Without condoning their actions, we can recognize their desperation and frustration, their sense of futility, their inability to feed their children that would lead to violence. They kill the first two delegations. And then, when the son shows up, it becomes clear that this is not the brightest group of vineyard workers in the land: they wrongly assume that in putting the son to death, they will gain the vineyard for themselves. Father sends son; son is killed; we get the land? Not so. For the owner, the father, will avenge the murder of his son by putting the workers to death and hiring others who will be more compliant and willing to live with the merciless regard of the owner. If this were the parable Jesus told, it would serve as a warning to landowners who were merciless, who treated their employees horribly, who enjoyed the pleasures of life at the expense of workers who suffered terribly and had no alternative for work. If this were the parable Jesus told, it would call into question the economic system we may take for granted in which growing numbers of citizens survive with little work while others simply enjoy the pleasures of life.
But, then, Matthew adds an allegory – a saying that actually means something else – when we hear the quotation concerning the transference of the kingdom of God from one people to another. Matthew appears to make an allegory out of Isaiah 5, today’s first reading. But note this: there are no peasant workers in Isaiah 5; it is the whole people of Israel who are the vineyard. And there is no revenge murder visited upon vineyard workers in Isaiah 5 but rather the destruction of the grape vines – an allegory for a people who in the 6th c. before Christ have begun to worship other gods. Thus, the problem in this appended allegory is not with all of Israel (as it is in Isaiah); Matthew’s allegory is not a castigation of the Jewish people (though such denunciation has been a common practice among some Christians and neo-Nazis). Rather, the problem is with a group of leaders – in Matthew’s view the Pharisees – who place heavy religious burdens upon the people, who are more concerned about offering sacrifices to God than being merciful to one’s neighbor, who are quick to divide people into “insiders” and “outsiders,” a division justified by a narrow code of personal ethical behavior. What you and I hear in this strange allegory is the frustration and bitterness of Matthew’s community of Jewish Christ followers who, in the latter part of the 1st c., had been rejected by their Jewish brothers and sisters because they, the Christ followers, worshiped Jesus as the Messiah of God. What you and I hear in this strange allegory is a measure of retaliation from Matthew: the leaders of the Jewish synagogue, he suggests, are not worthy leaders of the people of God: it has now passed to the leaders of the Christian community. They are the vineyard workers who will follow the instruction of the vineyard owner. And thus, we come to the beginning of that tragic history in which the worshippers of a Jewish Jesus were divided from the very people Jesus claimed as his own, in which the worshippers of a Jewish Jesus forgot that he was a Jew and thus visited upon their Jewish neighbors a history of intolerance and persecution.
And so I wonder: do you and I, whose lives are centered in the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, do we not dwell with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the vineyard of this world, a vineyard created by the one God? And whether we are Jew or Christian, can we not see that this story calls us to faithful living in this world as seen by our Jewish friends in the life-giving Law of Moses, as seen for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? And together with our Jewish friends and with many other sisters and brothers, might we yet participate in that great work of God, in the healing of life and lives that are wounded by bigotry and willful misunderstanding, by gross economic disparity and a cruel preference for the wealthy, by the small-mindedness that imagines all of life narrowly conformed to one’s small experience of the world?
A number of years ago, I took my university students to work for a day in the Mother Earth Farm, a work sponsored by Emergency Food Network of Pierce County. As we arrived, we counted others who would be working in the fields: women form the Purdy Correctional Prison in their bright orange uniforms; a colorful and flamboyant group of drag queens from Seattle; a large group of Korean women from a conservative Presbyterian church in Tacoma – those women startled by the drag queens; my students wondering if it were safe for them to work with prisoners. The day progressed as we worked in self-imposed segregation until the Korean women needed help from some hefty drag queens to move a few large stones. And, then slowly but surely, we began to work with people we would not normally meet, getting to know each other and working together – working together to ensure that hungry children and their parent or parents would be nourished on real food and free food grown in God’s good earth. At the end of the day, as we slurped down chilled lemonade it suddenly and surprisingly dawned me: is that what the kingdom of God might look like: people drawn from wildly different lives yet joined together in the great work of God, every shoot planted in the soil a gesture of hope?
Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.