The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2020
Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today’s Gospel follows right on the heels of last week’s story of the two sons, one who refused his father’s command to work in the vineyard, but later went and did as he was asked, and the other who readily agreed, but never followed through. That parable was scathing in its critique of Israel’s leaders who so readily say one thing and yet do the opposite, who are full of noble words, but short on action. Jesus makes it clear that those rejected by the polite society that the chief priests and elders represent more readily do the will of God, hear God’s word, than any of them: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you!”
Last week, I pointed out how Jesus sought to drive home to these leaders his condemnation of them, even as he stood right in the midst of their headquarters, the Temple in Jerusalem. From today’s gospel, we see that he was not finished with them, for he demands that they stay and “hear another parable.” I’m not sure I would have stuck around just to be skewered again, but the force of Jesus’ words (and the construction of Matthew’s narrative) must have kept them glued to the spot.
This story of the landowner is, like all of Jesus’ parables, a tale rooted in the lived experience of his contemporaries. As in the account of the two sons from last week, it is a situation easily recognisable from the family life of people like the chief priests and elders, privileged leaders of the people. In this case, it reflects the practice of large landowners letting out equipment and parcels of land to tenants and sending their servants, deputies, to collect the rents and produce. The account also shows us another familiar group, unscrupulous men who seek their own gain at the expense of others, not unlike the ungrateful servant who when forgiven his own debt, refused to offer like generosity to someone beholden to him. In this case, those men carry out an ill-conceived plan of mayhem and murder to steal the property from the land owner.
There is, however, more to this narrative than the straight-forward analogies we have heard before. Indeed, as we listen to it, the story sounds strangely familiar. We hear about a remote and distant lord, whom the tenants did not regularly see, who sent servants in his place to exercise his authority and collect the fruit that was his due. These agents were, in turn, beaten and killed and stoned. After numerous attempts, the landowner takes another tack, and to ensure his will was done, sends his own son as his representative, the ultimate servant of the master. Perhaps they will respect and listen to him, he thinks. Yet these tenants persisted in their greed and wickedness and violence, and ultimately “took [the son] and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” Yes, this is somehow very familiar, and both the chief priests and the elders listening to Jesus, along with Matthew’s audience, would have recognised it even more clearly than we, for this parable is also an allegory, in which the characters specifically represent actors in the divine narrative.
The chief priests and elders and Matthews’s audience all were keenly aware how over and over God had sent prophets to Israel, and that these figures were routinely ignored and ridiculed, themselves suffering greatly. More than this, in fact, they all would have been specifically familiar with the image of the vineyard as an allegory for Israel and of the landowner as an allegory of God, for all this language is drawn from the passage from Isaiah that we also heard this morning. Isaiah could not have been plainer: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!”
The chief priests and the elders, along with Matthew’s hearers, would have been intimately familiar with the history of Israel’s continuing disobedience and of God’s continual work to bring them back into the fold. They would also have been specifically familiar with Isaiah’s words and images, including the very particular details of the hedge, the wine vat, and the tower that are conjured as this parable of the vineyard unfolds. There is no way they could have missed the connection. Matthew is, in fact, especially counting on his community to link the stories, to see in Isaiah’s words Jesus’ story—both the parable he tells and Jesus’ own story, the story of the son who has come in the place of the Father to reassert the authority of the Kingdom of God over and against the powers of the world, and to set things right. Matthew does this again and again, relying on the familiarity of his community with the scriptures to make clear God’s redemptive patterns of activity and to confer authority on Jesus’ words and work.
This episode, then, is not a simple, intuitive parable, but rather a complex, multi-layered, allegorical, and highly literary way of talking about Jesus and his mission, about that mission’s relationship to God’s work in the past, and about how that mission has a real impact upon people’s lives in the here and now. For this reason and because of certain other elements, including the text’s direct quotation of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the reference to Jesus’ death, and the inclusion of certain phrases that seem refer to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, most scholars agree that this parable is unlikely to be an original saying of Jesus.(1) Most probably it originated with Mark and was taken up and adapted by Matthew to sharpen its emphasis on the future of Israel as a lesson for the community to whom the Gospel was addressed.
Bearing this in mind, we must resist the temptation to interpret the text (as have so many over the centuries) as Jesus’ personal statement that the Kingdom shall be taken away from the Jews and given to Christians. Indeed, rather than being an attack on Israel in general, it is Matthew’s scathing critique of Israel’s leaders, and of all leaders, who try to erect roadblocks in the way of God and those whom God sends. These are the same leaders about whom we heard in last week’s Gospel, the ones who said “yes,” to God but in the end did not act to do his will. These are the same leaders who looked down upon the harlots and tax collectors, about whom we have heard so much in the past few weeks and who may have initially resisted God’s hopes and dreams for them, but who in the end acted and ascended to do the will of God. Matthew’s parable of the vineyard shows us cynical and dishonest community leaders whose resistance to God’s will for creation is nothing in the face of God’s steadfast love for us.
For indeed, the parable is also a story of God’s unwavering love for Israel in continually and eternally seeking reconciliation of God and humankind. It speaks of God time after time sending those messengers in the face of resistance and violence. It speaks of God who loved the world so much that in the end sent Jesus so that in his sacrifice something new could emerge and all God’s people might be reconciled with God. This story is an attack on faithless leaders who refuse to hear the Word of God and, therefore, refuse to God’s will for us.
In our lives, sometimes we are those leaders, and we turn from God and seek our own selfish interest before that of God and of our neighbours. Sometimes, however, and I hope and pray more of the time than not, we are those tax collectors and sinners from the story of the calling of Matthew, we are and can be those into whose hands God turns over the vineyard. We are and can be the new generation of leaders who seeks to conform our will with God’s will. And although we will more than likely fail in our early attempts, although we will fall short, we can be guaranteed that God will keep on working with us, keep on sending those messengers, in the form of our brothers and sisters, and of the Holy Spirit, to keep us on the right path, to keep us tending the garden and rendering those fruits, that service, right back to the God who loves us more than we can imagine. Unlike the wicked tenants, we have the power within us to listen, to respond, to return the first fruits to God in the form of works of love and justice.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 2 October 2020
(1) Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagena, 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 303.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume