The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
This is really a horrible story, isn’t it? We might find this Gospel story even more disturbing having seen so much violence in our country in the past few years. It’s a story about deep greed and a people who lack any moral compass—themes also too familiar to us.
The parable Jesus offers us today describes a common practice in first century Palestine where an absentee landowner planted a vineyard and leased it out to tenants who cared for it in return for a share in the final crop. Building on the imagery we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the vineyard in the parable Jesus told represents Israel and the landowner stands for God.
The slaves sent to bring the owner produce from the vineyard are the Hebrew prophets who endured insult, beating, capture, and even death in order to bring God’s message to the people. The final messenger is God’s Son. The wicked tenants are the leaders who ruled Israel and oppressed its people. What is condemned in this parable is the misuse of privilege and power,
After its benign opening, this parable Jesus told goes downhill fast. It is a violent story which, sadly, we hear even as we have been stunned and shaken by violence in our country. Tragedy and heartbreak and human wreckage will always be the end result when people believe that they are the entitled and privileged landowner rather than a blessed and loved tenant.
This Gospel story has been used to convey a number of messages to God’s people. It has been offered as a lesson in the depth of God’s patience with us; it speaks to the rejection of Jesus as Messiah by the religious leaders of Israel. And we could preach several sermons on how it speaks to our abuse of Mother Earth and the consequences of that, many which we are witnessing every day.
This parable is about how God behaves, not the way human beings do. The Pharisees answer really makes a lot of sense in terms of the way our world sees things: put the wretches to a miserable death and lease the land to others. Jesus changes the entire focus of this discussion. He quotes from Psalm 118: The stone the builders rejected.” God’s son is rejected and crucified and yet God does not exact vengeance or smite and kill and give the wicked tenants what they deserve. This God doles out mercy. This God gives love and eternal life. God does not act like the Pharisees would. God acts like God.
What Jesus is railing against here is how the Pharisees and, yes, how religious leaders even today have perceived God in their image, made God into someone who acts like humans at their worst, made God to be an oppressive and exclusive landowner and have, essentially, masked the true face of God for many, many people.
As a nation, we have been singularly blessed with great prosperity, a rich, fertile vineyard; but we are also a nation where greed, advantage, and privilege in some of the landowners have inflicted great hardship, suffering, and even death on others.
In Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was speaking at a conference about his experiences during the Second World War and, especially, about the terrors of the Gestapo prison where he spent several years. He was talking about how terribly real God had become to him in that terrible place.
A young man stood up and said, “We appreciate all that you went through. But why should this concern us now? We have so many other problems, the rebuilding of Germany, the search for a vocation, solving our social problems.” The Bishop quietly replied, “I understand your concerns. But you should give some time to the question of God now, because the day will come when God will be very important.”
What has this story and its focus on violence have to do with the welcoming of Averie Elizabeth into God’s family and this community of faith. Just this: God has given us this vineyard we call our world. Will we as God’s people ensure that the vineyard is a safe, nurturing, compassionate place for Averie and the youngest among us? Will we as a nation invite God in, as the loving Creator, to intervene and restore some sanity, wholeness, and compassion to this incredible vineyard that God has given us to cultivate, that God might move in as the divine landowner and redeem creation. Like the Lutheran bishop, I believe the day has come when God will be very important in what are some terrible times.
Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a humble, gentle soul with a great love and respect for all of creation, especially the earth, our natural environment and animals. What would our world, our country, look like if this prayer, attributed to his name, became our country’s petition:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, Grant that we may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.