Todays readings for 18th Sunday After Pentecost Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Psalm 19 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
The passage that we are looking at here in Matthew’s gospel carries on from the parable that we had last week and it continues to address the same question, that of Jesus authority, albeit that it arrives at a different conclusion to the journey. This passage also, like the bit before, references an Old Testament passage, in fact two different passages, one in the parable and one in Jesus’ explanation of it. There is also a terrible potential that is addressed and that will be rectified by the events of the gospel as they unfold. First to recap, the Chief Priests and the Elders are feeling very threatened by Jesus who has ridden into Jerusalem and been hailed as the Messiah by the crowds. Then Jesus has gone to the temple and overturned the money lenders tables, he has healed and taught and the powers that be want to know from whose authority he is doing these things. In fact, I think they probably want Jesus to come straight out and claim God’s authority so that they can accuse him of blasphemy- which is of course what ultimately happens. When they question him he asks a question in return about John the Baptiser – from whence does his authority come and the Chief Priests and Elders don’t know how to answer, then Jesus tells them a short parable of two brothers, one who says he will work in the vineyard and doesn’t and one who says he won’t work but does. This parable in today’s text follows straight on from there.
When Jesus told this parable his listeners would have immediately heard the resonance with Isaiah 5 in which God plants a vineyard- indeed in Hebrew many words are common to both passages, so the differences stand out starkly. Let me read you Isa 5:1-7
The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
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!
In Isa 5 the song sung is a marriage ballad, a song all about fertility and promise, at least at the beginning. Sadly it degenerates into a song of judgement, because the vineyard itself is faithless. The vineyard is always an image of Israel the nation. Here the vineyard from which God expected good fruit, has yielded only wild grapes, small and sour, and the justice which God expected has been replaced with bloodshed. The beautiful vineyard that God planted, has been laid waste. Jesus takes this image of the vineyard and twists it to make his point, one that is very unflattering to the leadership, and which exonerates the people.
In Jesus’ parable it begins the same way, the land owner, immediately identifiable with the beloved of the Isaiah passage, plants a vineyard and does the same things puts a fence around it, digs a pit for the press and puts a watchtower in the midst of it to protect it. Then he leases it out and goes away. When the harvest time comes he sends his servants to collect the rent, in the form of a percentage of the crop, a tithe, which is owing. These first servants are the prophets of old, if I am reading Jesus’ parable right- they are beaten, killed and stoned. A second wave is sent-presumably referring to John the Baptist but they too are badly treated, indeed killed. So finally, in a bid to send someone that they will respect properly he sends his own son, but the response is that the tenants think that without the son they might inherit and so they kill the son. With hind-sight, we know that this is precisely what does happen. The Son of God the most high, the owner of the vineyard has been sent and killed, though God in his great mercy brings a different ending to this story.
When Jesus asks the Chief priests and elders, who are his interlocuters, what the owner of the vineyard would do to the tenants, they reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. Jesus’ listeners see a kind of retributive justice as the answer. Thankfully, this is not God’s answer.
Before I go any further I should mention the fact that this passage, and the next verses when Jesus says that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom was used to authorize a supersessionist view, which allowed the Jews to be persecuted. The idea was that God had taken his favour away from the undeserving Jews and given it to the Christians, who succeeded them, so it was OK to harass, and even kill the Jews. The view was taken to its extreme, culminating in the Holocaust- it’s a very dangerous position for us to adopt, particularly with the rise of nationalists all around the world at the moment.
I do not think that this parable is about nationality, nor so much about religion, but a stern word to the powers that be, in what ever structure, to make sure that they are treating the Son of the vineyard owner with the respect due to the one who owns the whole shebang. And that is what we often fail to do. We fail to recognize that it is God that owns the vineyard, and we who owe him the produce- the fruit that we produce. In the big picture the whole of creation is God’s and we have a responsibility to be good tenants, a fact that we often forget. But in the vineyard that is our own lives we can equally forget that we have a duty to God to bring forth fruit and to offer it to God. Many of us in our society, think that God, if God even exists, is a long way off and has no interest in us, whereas the reality is that God is always waiting for us to acknowledge God’s rights over us as our creator and sustainer. The harvest, whatever it brings, can be a wonderful celebration for us as God’s people. We are called to a generosity towards God that is but a shadow of God’s generosity to us. And the way that we show that generosity, which is the fruit we give to God, is in generosity to others.
So that is one of the things that we need to bear in mind as we read this passage. The other thing, for us as a church, is that Jesus here describes himself as the cornerstone. He is the stone on which the whole building depends for its stability. This is Jesus’ second quotation, this time from Psalm 118 and he changes metaphors from the vineyard to the building. He is undoubtedly the son who dies, but he is equally the foundation of the building, the stone that the builders rejected, which has become the only way to build the building. This is an example, I think of Jesus prescience, just as the Son is going to be killed, so he will also be the foundation of what follows, and that is a Kingdom not based on national boundaries, nor on religious observance, like the Jewish system but on the mercy of God. Christ who dies on the cross, defeats death itself and then is resurrected and ascended so that we can share in that Kingdom life. The chief priests and elders think that God’s kingdom will be run on the principle of retribution, but in fact the Kingdom of God is characterized by mercy- God’s grace outpoured to us bring us in, to include us no matter who we are and what we have done. And it is we, forgiven, redeemed and loved who are called to produce, even to be, the fruits of this Kingdom and to give back our labour and our gifts to God.
But there is also a word of caution here to us who are leaders. We must never forget that the vineyard belongs to God, or to call in the other metaphor, that the building is the Lord’s. We must be very careful not to be like the Pharisees, or the chief priests and elders who make life so difficult for people to come into the Kingdom. We are called to be people like God, people of justice and mercy, people of compassion and grace, people of generosity. God’s people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.