SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2017 (18th after Pentecost) “The beloved’s vineyard”
TEXTS: Isiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46
So I don’t really have a witty childhood farm story for you about vineyards, as our farm never had a vineyard, beyond the bunch of vines that grew completely unattended on the border fence between the garden and the barnyard. This is not to say that my grandfather didn’t make wine; he did actually, using those grapes and giving it about the same attention as he gave to the vines. The end result was that I’m pretty sure that my Grandfather’s wine could etch glass! Few times that the family actually drank it was more out of a sense of tradition and respect than for the enjoyment of the lovely bouquet.
Anyway, in our gospel lesson, Jesus does a pretty good job himself of describing the amount of work needed to create a working vineyard. Not only must you plant grape vines, which is not an easy task in itself, you also had to set a fence around the vineyard to keep out wild animals; you had to build a wine press and also a watchtower to guard and protect your crop. All of this of course amounted to an enormous investment of time, labor and money on the part of the landowner, an investment that the landowner would naturally need to recoup. So he leases the vineyard out to tenants, probably for a set sum, allowing the tenants to keep anything above that set sum as the profit for their continued labor. Not only the landowner, but the tenants themselves are then relying upon a good crop of grapes and a good production of wine for their livelihood.
When it comes time for the landowner and the tenants to realize their profit though, the tenants have somehow come to feel entitled to more than what they would reap from the original agreement. In fact the tenants seem to be more and more convinced that they somehow entitled to the whole property. First they refuse to pay the landowner his fair share, then they go as far as to devise a plan to take over the property completely by killing off the heir and filing a quit claim deed. What befuddles me about the whole parable is how the tenants could ever assume that they would not eventually endure the wrath of the landowner.
Yet you know and I know that such a thing happens all the time. It happened in the history of the Bible and it happens to this day. If we look back to the Old Testament, to 2 Samuel, chapters 11 and 12, we find the story of King David and Bathsheba. Now David was never depicted as a stupid man, yet David thought that he could have his own general, Uriah, killed and then “inherit” Uriah’s wife as his own. And it never seemed to occur to him that he would not suffer the judgment of God for such act?
Unfortunately, when a person, or especially a group of people, begin to assume a sense of privilege because of who they are, it is amazing how blind they can become to their own acts of injustices; their own evils. And they can then become just as blind to the inevitability of the judgment of God. This is why we find King David condemning himself when the prophet Nathan comes to him and tells him a “parable” about a rich man and a poor man and the poor man’s little lamb. This is why we find the Pharisees being just vocal when Jesus offers them the parable of the landowner and the vineyard and the wicked tenants, as they are the ones who call for swift vengeance against those wicked tenants.
Now as an aside, let me note that the lectionary cycle that we use has been set for some fifty years and more, and has experienced very little editing and few changes over that period. And yet I find it interesting that as we come closer and closer to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation, I have been finding that the lectionary passages seem fit into the circumstances around the reformation very well. Maybe it’s just the fact that we are focusing so closely on the reformation and that I have been studying the work of Martin Luther more than I ever have in my life, but it still seems that the Reformation and our Lectionary dovetail into each other beautifully!
Again, let us look to the situation of the church of Rome in the time of Luther. The church had, over the centuries, become more and more like the wicked tenants of Jesus’ parable, had it not? Rome assumed its own sort of privilege to a higher and higher degree, until even God seemed to be pushed out of the equation. Life in the church of Rome was no longer about faithfulness to God, but rather about faithfulness to the church and to those who ruled the church. Popes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were accustomed to wielding as much power, or even more power than kings of that period. In fact popes of that period were usually drawn from European royal families, and, in turn, had the power to set certain people or certain families upon the thrones of
And when prophets of their day, people like John Huss who called for reform
A hundred years before Luther, when prophets of that age called for a return to faithfulness, they were beaten, tortured and often executed as heretics. Had Martin Luther himself not had powerful and astute friends at the time of his proclamations of reform, I believe firmly that he too would have been killed as a heretic. One has to wonder if Jesus Christ himself had come again in that period, would he have been treated as the reformers were treated, executed as many of them were executed, by the very church that had grown from his own life, death and resurrection?
So now we are some 500 years beyond the time of Martin Luther and the beginning of the reformation that has more closely defined this denomination than any other protestant group. Where are we in the equation? And before we glibly say to ourselves, “Well, I’m not a wicked tenant!” let me remind you as remind myself again and again, the Pharisees at the time of Jesus were blind to their wickedness; King David was blind to his wickedness; even the church of Rome in the time of Martin Luther was blind to its wickedness. So I caution you to not answer too quickly! Let us not formulate our opinions until we look to our own attitudes of privilege in this world that God has created.
When I look world around me at the loving creations of God, spoken into being through the power of God’s Holy Word, I am forced to realize that for all my talk about being a rabid environmentalist, even I fail to care for creation as I often could; even I pollute without thinking or discard things that could be reused or recycled or use my polluting vehicle at times when it is simply more convenient than necessary to use it. And I do all this while sometimes looking down my nose at those who are not as caring of the environment as I believe myself to be!
Is not all of creation God’s pleasant a vineyard? Have we not all been given creation as a trusted grant? Have we not all been called to till the earth and to keep it? And do we not too often treat the earth as if it is ours and not God’s? Do we not do as we please with its natural resources to fit our own needs and desires rather than renewing and preserving it as a precious trust for those to come?
And what about faith itself? How often have we “possessed” our faith; shaping it to fit our desires rather than using it to honor God? We cling closely to the cross of Christ and we gladly wave the banner of Christianity when it is convenient to us and when it benefits us, but do we truly follow the teachings of Christ? Do we stand for justice and truth when justice and truth are uncomfortable or when waving that banner could cause us difficulties in life?
As is so often the case, I feel that I must leave my sermon here, for I cannot answer for you the questions that I have asked. They are yours to wrestle. Yet I hope that you will wrestle with them, for that too is part of our faith. To wrestle with God’s word, to challenge ourselves with the good news, is part of being faithful to Christ, for the good news needs be good news not only for us or for some precious few but rather for everyone, and for all God’s creation. We are told that Martin Luther wrestled a lot, that he agonized over his thoughts and his actions. Let us then be just a bit like Luther. Let us receive the word of God and the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with joy; and then let us take the time to wrestle with that same good news, that we might be God’s righteous children, sisters and brothers in Christ our Savior.