Proper 22 Year A
As with all Jesus’ parables, the one appearing in today’s gospel lesson must be interpreted in its historical context. Risky though it may be, I feel I can speak, to some extent, on behalf of my clergy colleagues here at Ascension and, perhaps, everywhere when I note how unsettling this is. It’s unsettling because Matthew’s Jesus is clearly speaking against the religious leaders of his day. The plot gets even thicker when we acknowledge that the layers of meaning in this parable cannot and will not remain locked within the limitations of past history.
As we begin sifting through these verses in an effort to see past our own first impressions – which, let’s face it, can be pretty scary – it’s helpful to note where we are in the arc of the gospel narrative.
At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus has entered into Jerusalem on the back of a colt. He’s been acclaimed the messianic Son of David, and the whole city is described as being in turmoil. He’s gone directly to the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers; he then turns around and heals the blind and the lame. He exits, spending the night in Bethany, and returns the next day, stopping only to wither a fig tree (a sign, some say, of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the disempowerment of the temple leadership). His authority is, then, unwisely challenged by the chief priests and elders (?) who are left speechless as Jesus offers a series of parables:
• the two sons, one of which says he’ll work in the vineyard and does not, the other doing the reverse
• our parable of the wicked tenants
• and the wedding banquet for the king’s son, which begins a new chapter.
All of these parables are in direct response to Jesus’ having been challenged, and each speaks to the religious leaders, rather than the Jewish people as a whole. This is another crucial distinction because, for centuries Christians interpreted these sayings as God’s rejection of the Jewish people. Modern scholarship suggests that here Jesus draws a line within Judaism, and not between Jews and Christians.
So Jesus draws a line. And he uses parables, also known as literary devices meant to poke at prevailing ways of thinking – meant to turn those ways of thinking around, or upside down, even. And some of the power of the message relates to Matthew’s talent in terms of how he structures the writing:
• the basis for the parable is Isaiah chapter 5, which calls Israel “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts” and predicts judgment for Israel’s failure to produce good grapes
• so the pattern becomes scripture (Isa 5)/explication/scripture (Ps 118), very typical of synagogue teaching
• it is then clearer to us that, in using these references, Matthew’s Jesus means to point us toward a traditional motif in Judaism, i.e., rejection of the prophets
o his brilliant writing progressing in notably Matthean fashion – in triads:
– three delegations, ascending in rank
– three rejections, ascending in degree of violence
– and the identity of Jesus as the vineyard owner’s son, with hints of impending violence toward Jesus himself, clearly being left for readers to infer.
What else can we infer? What can we make of this judgment on Israel’s religious leaders for their failure to produce the fruits of God’s holy reign – such fruits, of course, being deeds of justice and loving-kindness?
We’ve noted that this parable, like all of Jesus’ parables, has the power to reach beyond the confines of a single historical setting. The uneasiness its imagery evokes, like so many unsettling bible stories, grabs at our emotions. And when our emotions are engaged so deeply – think Abraham and Isaac – think Jesus’ own passion story – it seems to me to be the expression of a kind of yearning for the message inside the story to remain in our hearts.
And part of the message in this really uncomfortable story of these poor sad vineyard tenants seems to be Jesus letting us know that we should, as we try to live the gospel, expect rejection. But the most important thing is not the rejection of the gospel as a system of ideas, arguments, or a cascade of propositions inviting the assent of others. Christian faith is not, in its essence, a philosophy or a worldview. It’s not, in this parable, even a moral or spiritual vision for our lives.
This parable seeks to help us learn to expect rejection of the gospel at the point of contact – at the defining moment of personal encounter.
Personal rejection is the heart of this parable.
And, embedded within this tale of personal rejection and deadly violence is the powerful reminder that at the heart of our faith is relationship. Relationship with Jesus. And I say relationship with Jesus, not to use evangelical language but, instead, to articulate an even deeper reality hidden in these verses. The gospel comes to us as a person. And the experience of our faith, ultimately, has a great deal to do with how we are able to allow the Christ-essence to move through us as we become the person who brings the gospel to others.
How do we do so? And what stops us from doing so?
The vineyard in which we labor today seems especially ripe with the fruits of Matthew’s parable. The gospel, as always, is under attack. Twin assaults:
• on one hand, aggressively rationalist voices dismiss the Christian faith as weak, irrelevant and anesthetizing – or worse
• and, perhaps more troubling still, the true meaning of the gospel, which is grounded in abiding, compassionate love as it is expressed in personal understanding and human connection has been – and this has been the case in every age – appropriated by leaders religious and political, (themselves enmeshed), for use as a device meant to dominate and manipulate at precisely the same point at which this parable’s message seeks loving openness, that is, at the point of contact. The defining moment of personal encounter. The defining moment of abiding, compassionate love as it can only be known through personal understanding and human connection.
So we should expect rejection. Not only from the rationalist world culture, but even worse, from those of Jesus’ own household. Especially those in positions of power.
“When the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds…”
It seems like the murderous tenants feared as well. They certainly were not acting out of love, or even peace.
(I’m exploring, of late, amending my belief regarding the two generating impulses from which human beings tend to act. For a long time I’ve felt that one is fear and the other is love. But it’s beginning to strongly resonate inside my heart that, while one is very likely fear, the other may actually be peace. That peace is the only fertile soil in which love can grow. It precedes love. My thoughts are borne of twin strands – one the Buddhist way of coming to terms with attachment and aversion; the other Jesus’ first words in all the post-resurrection appearances, “Peace be with you”. Here, it seems Jesus echoes the Buddha who says, “All the problems of the world stem from the absence of a peaceful heart.” I’d be interested in your thoughts on the subject.)
And so, as we attempt to live the gospel, now knowing to expect rejection, we may be more aware of fear. And not just the fears in others, but being mindful of the potential for our own fear-based, emotionally reactionary responses to the fears of others.
But how do we end the cycle? (pause) How do we end the cycle of reactionary response behaviors?
It happens at the point of contact. That may be a good place to start.
What would it take to end the cycle of reactionary response behaviors, beginning at the defining moment of personal encounter? When I’m ticked off, what will it take for my peaceful heart not to be derailed?
Mindful of my own fears, my heart tells me that one of the things it may take is time. Time. One of the greatest generators of fear.
• “I can’t stop and take the time to preserve a peaceful heart!”
o “I have projects – each with its own to-do list”
o “There are deadlines to be met”
o “Trains to be caught”.
Jesus used parables to help us think differently.
Maybe one of the ways he’d be interested in helping shift our thinking has to do with that wish for us he made on his way up to heaven. “Be at peace.”
He chastised the religious leaders because of the ways they failed to help those they were supposed to be serving – the ways they failed to bring about justice and loving-kindness.
So maybe it makes sense for religious leaders to help bring those we serve to places of peace, especially in times of pain. I really believe this to be true. Especially if peace is the foundation for love and all the loving responses we wish to offer.
And so, as you go forth from this place, attempting to live the gospel, attempting to be even a little more aware of the ways in which fear seeks to keep you in its grip, at the risk, once again, of speaking for my colleague religious leaders, I wonder: “How can we help you?”
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
October 8, 2017