McFarland

18th Sunday of Pentecost October 4, 2020

Readings

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Prayer of the Day:
Beloved God, from you come all things that are good.  Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen

Hymns of the Day

If you don’t have hymnals at home,
look up the hymns on YouTube or other websites.

The Church of Christ in Ev’ry Age – ELW #729
Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation – ELW #645
My Song Is Love Unknown – ELW #343
How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord – ELW #580

Reflection on Matthew 21:33-46

by Pastor Kelli Schmit

This parable, often called The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, is in all three of our synoptic gospels, but this version is the most violent and disturbing.[1]  It seems like a story the Saturday Night Live character, Debbie Downer, would tell.  At the end of the reading, we say “The Gospel of the Lord.”  Today, a more fitting response seems to be “wah wah.”  It is a difficult text, but let’s dig in and see if we can uncover some good news.

It is helpful to remember that in the timeline of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable on the Tuesday of Holy Week.[2]  At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt, he overturns the tables of the money changers, struggles with a fig tree, and engages the religious leaders in parables about authority and taking care of God’s people.  This is the third and final parable.

It’s the Tuesday of Holy Week.  Pressure is mounting, conflict with established leadership is building, and Jesus is continuing to make people really angry.  And this parable seems to do the trick.

Keep in mind, the audience of Jesus’ parable is the elite of Jerusalem.  This was not the Sermon on the Mount, proclaimed for all to hear.  This parable was specifically for the chief priests and Pharisees.[3]  With some parables, we can be creative in our interpretation.  Like with the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel: we can put ourselves in the place of the man in the ditch or the people who walk by or the Samaritan who helps or the inn-keeper.  But today’s parable has little to no creative nuance.  It is much more cut-and-dry.  The allegory is not hard to interpret and the characters are not difficult to define.

The two groups of slaves or messengers represent the major and minor prophets.  The son in the story is taken outside the vineyard and killed, which is not too far of a stretch from what we know will happen in a couple of days, when another son is taken outside the city and killed.[4]  In Jesus’ story, the tenants who were caring for the land beat and kill everyone whom the landowner sent.  The parable ends and Jesus asks the chief priests and Pharisees: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (v40) They say: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” (v41) Their response is unknowingly a declaration of “their own condemnation.”[5]  They become angry because they realize Jesus is talking about them.

Scholar Matt Skinner highlights that through allegory, Jesus criticizes the leaders because “they are loading […] more obligations on people.  They are making religion onerous and not liberative.”[6]  The criteria of what it takes for one to be considered in good standing with God and the religious community – this list continues to increase.  Rather than journeying with people towards a full and free life with God and the community, the religious leaders make participation nearly, if not completely, impossible.  The chief priests and Pharisees hear this critique, are angered, and want to arrest Jesus, but they can’t…at least, not yet.

So where is the Good News in this story?

Well let’s check in with our reading from the First Testament.  Let’s see what Isaiah has for us this morning.  Maybe there will be some Good News there for us.  The vineyard keeper has a crop that looks promising, that is tended to and well taken care of, but the vines yield grapes that are wild.  You can hear the sadness and desperation in the landowner’s voice: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? (v4)

Just a verse further and we hear: “you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you.” (v8) The wild grapes that Israel is yielding is “the amassing of property at others’ expense.”[7]  It is the exploitation of the poor that leads God to lament over what the people of Israel are doing.[8]  So when Isaiah says that God expected righteousness but heard a cry, this wasn’t the cry of a hungry infant, a grumpy toddler, or an adult who is buckling under the pressure of a festering pandemic, this is the “cry of the oppressed.”[9]

Where is the Good News in this story?

So let me get this straight: we have two stories today focusing on vineyards.  In one, the vines represent the people of Israel and their actions are not fruitful but are wild, bitter, and harmful.  In the other, those taking care of what is entrusted to them are rejecting responsibility in order to increase their own wealth.  There are roughly 800 years[10] between these two stories, but the core issues are the same.  It’s the Human Condition.  The people are driven by greed, the insistence on being in control, and amassing wealth at the expense of others.  “Who cares who gets in my way?  I’ll squeeze out, beat, stone, or kill anyone who comes between me and what I think is or should be mine.”

In light of this reality, Jesus asks what we think the response should be.  Put those wretches to a miserable death?  While this parable is – without a doubt – distressing and one I’d rather avoid, scholar Rolf Jacobson points out that the most violent response is not from Jesus, but the chief priests and Pharisees.[11]  The strongest reaction doesn’t come from God but the people.  By asking how they think he should respond, Jesus reveals that God does not respond as humans would.[12]

We think anger and violence is the response, but God says, “I’m not like that.  I continue to shower the flames of your misdeeds with care and compassion and commitment to the relationship I have established with you.”  Now this isn’t a free pass.  It’s not that our bad choices that harm others go unchallenged or without consequence, but God’s response does not match that of humanity’s.

To quote David Lose, the focus of the parable is “not what will that landowner do, but what did that landowner do?”[13]  Remember, it’s Tuesday of Holy Week and we know what’s going to happen in a few days.  Jesus knew the Human Condition, and he still loved people and he still continued on his way to the cross.  He knew exactly who he was saving, forgiving, and redeeming.  God knew how human tendency typically responds and God still refused to let anything – even death – get in the way from being with those whom God loves.

The issues of stubbornness, greed, violence, name calling, abuse of power, disrespect, and oppression for the sake of personal or corporate gain – these issues are not ancient problems.  Earlier in this service we confessed that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We turn from God’s loving embrace and go our own ways.  We place our own needs before those of our neighbors.[14]  These problems are still happening today…and God still responds – not with violence – but with Easter.  And this is the Good News of the story.

Even at what seems like our worst, God still loves us.  There is nothing we can do to make God turn God’s back on us.  No one is too far gone.  God doesn’t wipe us out and ask for a mulligan.  Is it tempting?  Maybe…  God does not approve or endorse all of our choices and behaviors.  Many are in direct opposition of God’s movement toward the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven, but that doesn’t mean God cuts us off from God’s love.  God’s love is not conditional like that. 

The Creator of the Universe – the One who holds all of time in their hands – loves each and every one of us so much that they sent messengers, and prophets, and their own son, and so much more – all to make sure that we knew how incredibly loved we are.  We are free to stand with jaws agape at the grace and unrelenting love with which God continues to shower the parts of us that are saints, and the parts of us that are sinners…at the same time.  God’s response is not one of anger or hostility or violence, but God’s response is grace, salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and courage that can only come from God.

And this – hopefully, on our better days – is the inspiration for a new response.  A response, not of violence or retribution, but one where the poor in spirit are blessed, where those in the depths of mourning and grief are blessed, where those who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness are blessed, where the merciful and peace makers are blessed.  Our response shifts in light of what the landowner and son did for the tenants, and what our God and the Son of God did for us.  God knew exactly who we are, knows exactly who we were meant to be, and God’s response is Easter.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Matt Skinner from: Working Preacher, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Oct. 4, 2020) – Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave episode #745,” Sep 28, 2020, video, 34:25, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myG8X4lNfNo.

[2] M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vo. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 407.

[3] Matt Skinner from: Working Preacher, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.”

[4] Boring. 414.

[5] Boring. 414.

[6] Matt Skinner from: Working Preacher, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.”

[7] J. J. M. Roberts, footnote to “Isaiah 5.8-10” in The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated NRSV ed. Harold Attridge (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006), 920.

[8] Matt Skinner from: Working Preacher, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.”

[9] Roberts. Footnote to “Isaiah 5.7.” 920.

[10] Roberts. Introduction. 912.

[11] Rolf Jacobson from: Working Preacher, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.”

[12] Thank you to Kjersten (and Travis) Sullivan for the conversation on October 1, 2020.

[13] David Lose, “Craft of Preaching, Dear Working Preacher: Crazy Love (a.k.a. Preaching Matthew Against Matthew)” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1486 (accessed September 18, 2020.)

[14] Idea from: Matt Skinner, “Craft of Preaching, Dear Working Preacher: Indictments” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5457 (accessed September 29, 2020.)

Let Us Pray

God of Easter, not one piece or corner of the creation that you made goes unsupported by your love and gift of renewed life.  With your Spirit’s guidance, may your bottomless well of grace, forgiveness, courage, hope, and compassion shape our actions in the world.  Help us to respond with kindness rather than vengeance, understanding rather than fear, and integrity rather than complacency.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.