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Isaiah 5:1–7 | Philippians 3:4b–14 | Matthew 21:33–46
What is going on with the Vineyard? In Isaiah, all the conditions are perfect for the vines and grapes: They have good soil, protection, facilities—we might even say purpose—with the wine vat; and, something MORE than just these: There is LOVE. Now, metaphorically, this is an image of God and Israel. The Beloved who set-up the vineyard is God. The grapes are the people—a symbol of the good fruit that develops when in relationship with God. We remember, too, that fruit and here—grapes—exist more than just for their own sake. Grapes are for making wine, which is for celebration and communal gladness. So JOY is also the context of the vineyard . . . Except that the grapes don’t turn out and wine cannot be made.
This lovingly-cared-for vineyard is the backdrop of the story Jesus now tells. And WHAT is going on HERE? The focus shifts to the keepers of the vineyard, or tenants, who would give back 10% of the produce as rent to the Landowner. When the servants arrive for this mundane task, the tenants beat, kill and stone them—along with all the ones after that. This is just something that is not done. Apparently the tenants don’t care about their future since the results of their actions will be fatal. What could possibly be going on? . . . Maybe they haven’t done anything to actually tend or harvest the grapes—and are chagrined to show it. Or maybe they don’t want to give up what they now think is theirs?
I’m wondering if this is why the tenants do what they do to the servants that come to them: Beating, killing, stoning. Stoning being a strange way to talk about killing a messenger: This was a method of punishment reserved for “blasphemers” or people that said they spoke for God and others decided they didn’t; or “adulterers”—who were pretty much always the woman, by the way. That is, there is more than just interpreting that “prophets” were at the vineyard door, knocking: but there were other “outsiders” as well: The ones who were scapegoated, and punished for social sins that had a larger context, perhaps. The ones that we think if we can put down and get rid of—that somehow, beyond all logic, we won’t get caught not bearing and sharing the “fruit” of actual righteousness. In fact, we get so caught up those things that Jesus names—which mostly come back to preferring to look good rather than do good—that the presence of the Son is both meaningless and even threatening—as he calls us out of our high towers and into the streets. After all, Jesus just said that the prostitute is going into the kingdom ahead of all these religious guys. THIS is why they want to kill him. In fact, the very Cornerstone of God’s Kingdom is the Rejected.
Given the audience, the context of Jesus being in Jerusalem about to be killed, and what Jesus says soon after, we have some clues about his meaning. He’s talking TO and ABOUT the religious and political elite, walled up and forgetting to whom the power and wealth actually belongs. And really, this section wraps up when we hear in Mt. 23 a list of “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees”—which is mostly not in the church lectionary because, well, it gets a bit negative: Jesus says things like:
“you do not practice what you preach”
“you tied up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but are yourselves are unwilling to life a finger to move them” (Nov. 1)
“you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weighted matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”
“you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence”
“you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”
We also hear what the problem is with the people/grapes in Isaiah: “For 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; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Clearly, what’s happening in God’s Beloved vineyard is not what God had hoped.
What intrigues me this time, however, is the violent reaction to the ones who come to the wall. It reminds me of all the Fr. Keating says about our “programs for happiness that can never work” (bending everything to feed our perceived need for power/control, affection/esteem and safety/survival) that hold us captive—along with our over-identification with our groups. Groups are nothing new or strange to humans. They helped us survive in days past and now give us comfort and community to navigate real life, understand our roles and ease our existential anxiety. Groups can also be a way that—in this confusingly global world—that we divide and exclude: If some are in; others are out—based on certain criteria. Over-identifying is where the benefit begins to shift and undermine our essential happiness. In closing off to others, we close ourselves off to God. We develop a false-self focused on me and mine which has a tendency toward keeping everyone else out. Truly, we ALL do this. I think it takes effort NOT to: But the price is high. The Beloved can’t get through to us. We don’t grow into good fruit and the possibility for joy diminishes.
After all his statements, “Woe to you, Pharisees and scribes, hypocrites” comes the clincher: (We hear this in Lent.) And it’s not what you might think. It’s not retribution. It’s sadness: Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
The Son will be rejected and killed as well. As the outsider. The messenger that disrupts. His body will be broken, breaking down barriers and sending cracks through the very foundations of the earth so that love can flow through its veins and across the barriers we’ve built. But the Landowner is still part of this love story—the one that goes on with all of Creation. The one who longs for us to open our eyes and see the blessedness of the messenger who comes in the name of the Lord; who shows us that love is stronger than death. Who walks in the guise of all those “outside.” It may be that fruit springs up anew even now where we least expect it. The POINT of the vineyard, after all, is wine. It’s joy, gladness. It’s the foolish love of God. Maybe, even, we’ll have a little crazy love in return: Like Paul did. “Whatever gains I had I count as loss . . . as rubbish . . . because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Thanks be to God. Amen.