17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 5, 2014
Things are pretty tense in Jerusalem. Jesus is more and more confrontational with the Pharisees and other religious authorities. People are hearing his message of God’s kingdom being open to all and built on love and forgiveness and accepting it. People believe that Jesus is at least a prophet from God the Father, calling them to repentance and acceptance of God’s presence among them. Some of them obviously believe his claims to be the Messiah, the promised one, the answer to the prayers of every faithful Jew. But the leaders can’t accept it, he is not at all what they expect from their understanding of their Scripture. After all, they think, if he were the Messiah, they would know it, because they are the experts at interpreting Scripture.
The story Jesus tells is pretty scathing. You hear from the reading of Isaiah, that the image of a vineyard is used to describe the Children of Israel, God’s chosen people. But you can also hear from the same reading, that the failure of God’s people to live the love and justice of God has always been problematic. They may be the chosen people, but they don’t shelter the widow and orphan, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry. They were meant to be a holy nation, seeing the world through God’s eyes and instead, they are no better than the other nations surrounding them: eager to go to war, grasping at every chance to make a profit, turning their back on God to take care of themselves.
In Jesus’ story, the tenants are thieving and murderous in protecting what they have come to adopt as their own territory. They have completely forgotten that the land doesn’t belong to them, and they are not free to do with it what they will.
The poisonous tone Matthew uses to tell this story is shocking. The words of Jesus seem to address the issues that are causing dysfunction in his own community. At the time that this Gospel was written, the temple had already been destroyed by the Romans, and Matthew’s community was probably in Damascus or Antioch. The Jesus movement was still figuring out how it’s separation from the Jewish tradition in which it was born. When you read Paul’s letters, and the book of Acts, you realize that the church was struggling to figure out whether or not you had to be Jewish first to be a follower of Jesus, or if you could just come in as a convert from the Pagan religions of Greece and Rome. There is also the suggestion that many in the early church were very proud of their spiritual gifts and that leaders were lording it over other believers. Matthew continues to lift up openness to God’s call rather than being bound by rules, as the quality of righteousness. One of my commentators says that what was going on in Matthew’s community and what is being depicted here in Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders is a battle for the soul of the tradition.
These stories make me nervous because it really seems as if we are also living in a time when we are in a battle for the soul of our tradition. Are we to be strict about what it means to be a Christian, insisting that we follow the traditions that have been handed to us from the forefathers who came to this land because they had not been free to live according to their beliefs in their homeland? Or are we to be open to the new thinking in our society and changing understandings about divorce and sexual identity and the privacy of our homes that have allowed all kinds of abuses in the past? It is difficult, and faithful people disagree. I sometimes worry that in our struggles to be faithful, we will instead tear ourselves and our communities apart, and I am certain that such a thing is not what Jesus intended.
So what gives me hope in this story is the Landowner. He is so naïve. Imagine that after your first slaves, sent to collect your debt were abused and murdered, you would just send another contingent, perhaps more of them, and perhaps better protected. And then he sends his own precious son, his heir. “Surely they will respect my son,” he says. This man will try anything to give them another chance to get this right. The tenants are so twisted by the time the son arrives that they think that they can have the property if the heir is dead, and so they kill the son.
The Landowner is more than patient, giving chance after chance for the tenants to recognize his authority and maintain their position as his stewards. It is not until the tenants themselves are so blatantly disrespectful that they cut themselves off from their best chance. I think this story is humbling for any of us who claim a place in God’s kingdom. We are given chance after chance to get it right, and forgiven time after time for failing to live up to the standards God has set for God’s people. We will never be able to claim a place in God’s household because we deserve it. Rather we are invited to be stewards of God’s mysteries and of God’s love for the world because God invites us in. Sometimes we think of the church as our own territory and that we are the ones responsible for keeping it pure. But instead, I think what is required of us is to remember that it is God’s Church, won by Jesus’ own claim on us through his death and resurrection. Our work is to live that love that has invited us, to share our story of what a difference it makes to be God’s people in a chaotic world. Our work is welcome whoever God invites, because we realize that we are only here by God’s grace ourselves. What does God require of you? asks the prophet Micah. “To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” May we learn from these stories that we are just the same as those Biblical people, struggling with the same way to be faithful, and humbly praying that God will open our hearts to be as merciful in the world as God has been to us. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.