18 PENTECOST - PROPER XXII - A - 17 MATTHEW 21. 33-46
While serving with the Army in Germany many years ago now, I was fortunate enough to travel through the Rhine Valley. If you are not familiar with that part of Germany, it is Germany’s wine producing region. Vineyards dot the countryside much like the Napa valley in California.
In ancient Palestine for one to own a vineyard was a sign of wealth. It was not uncommon for the owner to be an absentee. Thus, the vineyard was rented to tenants who were responsible for keeping it up and producing the fruit the true owner expected to receive when he sent his servants to collect.
Today’s gospel along with the first lesson and psalm speak to the image of vineyards. In the first lesson, God is reacting to his disappointment in the house of Israel, which is His vineyard. She has not produced the fruit God was expecting. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.
The Psalmist is crying to the Lord in time of distress. Israel sees herself as God’s vineyard; God’s planting, but now it is as if the protecting walls of God’s presence are gone, and enemies crowd in to strip the vine of its fruit and to up root it like wild hogs. The psalmist prays for the return of God’s saving presence.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling a second parable; one of a vineyard that has been lent to tenants. He is speaking once again to the chief priests and elders as he stands in the Temple. It is a follow on to last week’s parable of the two sons.
You may recall that when they were asked which son had done the will of the father, the religious leaders had answered correctly and thus convicted themselves. They do so again in today’s parable by giving Jesus the correct answer when asked what the landowner will do to the wicked tenants who dealt violently with his messengers and killed the heir.
Their answer is no sooner out of their mouths when they perceive that Jesus is speaking about them. They become angry and would like nothing more than to lay hands on him but are afraid of the crowd who regards him as a prophet.
God regards Israel as his vineyard, as his own planting and has now sent His Son to Jerusalem to confront the ones God has left in charge with His demand that they repent and turn from their refusing to follow Him and become at last what God has called Israel to be, the light of God’s world.
Unfortunately, it is a story of how Israel is going to refuse God’s demand. It is a story that shows the hard-heartedness or sinfulness of the people. It is a story that reveals that God’s Son will receive the same treatment as the prophets who preceded him. To the degree that the prophets are heard, they are rejected.
Jesus’ story, however, has a different ending. The rejected one becomes the chief cornerstone of the new foundation. In the first lesson, the prophet Isaiah makes it perfectly clear what God wanted, justice. In addition, he makes it clear what God received, violence. In the gospel lesson, not much has changed. Injustice and violence mark the response of the tenants.
When we stop and think about it, not much has changed in our own culture today. Injustice and violence seem to be our characteristic response in contrast to God’s overtures of care and love. Both Matthew and Isaiah are teaching us about hardness of heart and ingratitude to God. Both have to do with the choices we make in response to God.
God has made us in His image but some choose to present themselves in this world as anything but by the choices they make and by the things, they do and say. That’s why we have injustice and violence today. Evil exists. Not because God created it but because with the God-given gift of choice, some choose to rebel against God and to go their own way without any compassion or concern for others.
Las Vegas is an example of one man’s choosing to conduct evil. The secular press, the irreligious, the liberal minded can all claim that he acted out of this or that reason, but the bottom line is he chose to kill, wound and maim and in the end, he chose to kill himself.
No one made him do it. He made the choice. How sad. How unfortunate. How unnecessary. One man’s evil caused scores of lives to be lost and countless lives to be scarred forever, and for what.
Jesus confronts the leaders of God’s chosen people in his telling of these two parables as a means of waking them up, shaking them out of their lethargy, and re-orienting them to their divine calling. However, they chose to reject his demand that they become what God created them to be. In addition, they chose to reject Him whom God has sent and will eventually hand Him over to be crucified.
It is easy for us to stand back after hearing the parable and comment why God’s chosen would do that. Likewise, it is easy for us to listen to the reports coming out of Las Vegas and ask why anyone would choose to do something like that. None of us likes to think that Jesus is telling the parable against us, we are not like that. Yet the truth is we have all been guilty of acting without justice.
We are all capable of becoming violent, of living a life void of compassion, of focusing entirely on self based on the choices we make. Compassion keeps us human. To choose to be compassionate is dangerous, because it means we choose to live our lives in response to God’s overtures of care and love, instead of acting out of our own human will and emotions.
It is dangerous because to live with compassion runs crosscurrent with today’s society where it seems to be every man for himself. God, the compassionate one, longs for us to see things as God sees them. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day lacked compassion and Jesus called them on it.
They became defensive and their anger moved them to seek a violent way in which they could rid themselves of Him. Lack of compassion allows us to slip into evil; to contemplate and commit such violent acts as Jesus describes in the parable, and which befell Him on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and most recently occurred in Las Vegas.
However, the world does not have to be like that. In God’s eyes, we are his vineyard. We are His planting in the world. Like Israel, God expects from us a certain fruit: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6.8), in other words to live a righteous life.
Righteousness is God’s gift based on our faith in Christ. It is a gift given in response to our choosing to live our lives in accordance with God’s will and in response to His Divine Love manifested most perfectly in His Son, Jesus.
To live a righteous life is to shun evil, injustice and violence and forgetting all which may have been part of our former lives “strain forward to what lies ahead; to press on,” as St. Paul says, “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” - to share in His glory. AMEN+