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October 8, 2023

19th Sunday After Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80:7-15

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,

grace and peace to you

from the one who works for restoration. Amen.

Well, this is quite a parable that Jesus tells.

And while we might start out wondering what the point of the parable is,

connections to the past begin to arise pretty quickly,

the setting is a vineyard

remarkably like the one described in our passage from Isaiah,

where “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts

  is the house of Israel,

 and the people of Judah

  are his pleasant planting;

 he expected justice,

  but saw bloodshed;


  but heard a cry!”

The vineyard image

is one that has been long used for the people of Israel

so we might expect that the parable

is about them,

but then the attention turns to the tenants

who have been given stewardship of this vineyard,

who when it is time to hand over the produce

rebel, and in a desire to keep it all for themselves

meet the messengers of the landowner with violence,

surprisingly, the landowner responds

by sending more messengers

who meet the same fate,

and finally the landowner sends his son,

whom they kill.

And by this time,

those of us who are post resurrection

are drawing pretty clear connections

to what will happen to Jesus,

what we know that Jesus knows

will happen to him,

he will be rejected and killed by the stewards of Israel,

and this is affirmed at the end when we are told that:

“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.”

And there we have it,

this is a passion prediction

cloaked in the form of a parable

that further more predicts the removal of God’s favor from Israel

to those who faithfully follow Jesus.

Simple right?

It’s at this point that we should start to be suspicious

of just how easy interpreting this parable seems

because if we know nothing else about parables,

we know that they are intended to provoke and instruct in surprising ways.

Now just because the chief priests and pharisees

saw themselves in the parable

doesn’t mean that it was all about them

and by extension the rest of the people of Israel.

What it does mean

is that the parable was doing its job

so that upon hearing it they realized a truth about themselves,

that one they didn’t like,

but they recognized it,

the truth that as leaders

they had been entrusted with the stewardship

of leading the people for the sake of God

but had decided to use their positions

to gain power and wealth for themselves

(and this had nothing to do with their being Jewish but more to do with corrupt leadership).

This truth is exposed by the parable

but that doesn’t mean it’s the only truth contained within the parable

and when we look at it again,

there are some surprising things that I think we miss in our rush to the obvious,

mainly about God.

The action of the parable is kicked off when,

after planting and outfitting this vineyard

the landowner leases it to tenants

and then goes away to another country.

If the landowner is the God character,

(and frankly who else could it be?)

Then we might be surprised

at the apparent absenteeism of this character.

Is God an absentee landlord

who sets things in motion then leaves,

only showing up at harvest time to reap the rewards?

Well no

but it is also accurate to say

that in the words of Richard Spalding “God will maintain at least sufficient distance to enable us to determine our own fruitfulness or to make our own mistakes. Though, of course, God is not an absentee landlord, mature faith means practicing sound values and sound devotion on our own, even when God seems distant.” Spalding, Richard E. Feasting on the Word, pg 144

The reality is that God,

having created free will,

lets us use it,

and we don’t always make the best decisions.

Then the question becomes

how will God respond to our decisions?

According to the parable

And to the biblical record

God sends messengers to remind us of who we are

and what we are called to,

and when we violently reject those messengers,

surprisingly, God sends more,

and then more again,

offering multiple chances for us to freely make the right choice,

and God even goes as far as sending God’s own Son,

who just like in the parable we kill,

it’s at this point in the telling of the parable

that Jesus poses the question to the audience:

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

and here the listeners project their human instincts onto God.

“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 harvest time.”

But Jesus’ offers response doesn’t include punishment,

Or even the replacing of the tenant for personal gain,

Rather his solution is one that envisions restoring the stewardship of the vineyard

to those who will use it to produce fruit for all,

even if that means giving the responsibility,

over to new and surprising people.

Titles given by the world don’t matter in the kingdom of God,

rejected stones can become cornerstones,

fishermen can be disciples,

the last can be first,

and if this means that responsibility

is taken away from some to give to others

it is not about punishment but restoring balance to God’s creation,

a balance that works a God created it,

to work for abundant life for all,

and God will do this as many times as God needs to.

How did God respond when we killed his son?

With vengeance?

No, with resurrection.

With new life,

new life not just for God’s son but the whole world.

This is our God,

offering us chance after chance,

forgiveness upon forgiveness,

grace upon grace,

new life when all seems lost,

it is not what we expect,

nor is it what we deserve

but it is what God does.

Thanks be to God. Amen

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