Sermon; Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 4 October 2020; Proper 22A (RCL); Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46.
Oh, dear – another parable about vineyards, and this one has a pretty ugly point to make. I’ve referred to Isaiah 5, and the song of the vineyard. This parable makes explicit reference to that song. In Isaiah 5, the prophet talks about God building a watch tower in the vineyard and digging a wine press. Matthew includes those details so we can’t miss the connection.
In Isaiah 5, God looked for justice but found bloodshed, and for righteousness, but heard a cry. So, the prophet says, God is going to tear down the wall around the vineyard, remove its hedge, and let the beasts of the field devour it. The vineyard is the people of Jerusalem, who were supposed to work for righteousness, but didn’t.
So, Matthew has Jesus use this same image, only this time against the religious authorities. And throughout history, this parable has been used to justify what is called supersessionism; that is, the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism as God’s favored religion. The idea of supersessionism has been used throughout history to persecute Jews, and this parable has often been used to justify that persecution. It’s just what Jesus said should happen.
We are forced to ask then, just what are the fruits of the kingdom, and who produces them. Isaiah tells us that the fruits of the vineyard are justice and righteousness – both really slippery words.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, speaks about a righteousness that comes from Christ, so maybe we can start there, and see if we can figure out what these fruits are. He starts out by saying, “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” and then lists off his credentials: circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Righteousness, then, has something to do with credentials, and the community status they grant. We might list off our credentials for being an American just like Paul does his for trust in the flesh: Patriot, served in the military (not me, but others), native-born, and so on. We could even list off our credentials for being a member of St. David’s: pledger, regular attender, volunteer for many years for Celebration of the Arts, and whatever other things earn points.
Earn points. Righteousness has something to do with our call on community, the favors we can call in. I suppose we can see justice in the same way. Think of the cases we’ve seen of black people killed by police. Who gets justice? Who has enough pull in community to be defended in the courts. Black Lives Matter has called our attention to the inequities of the justice system.
But Paul says he counts all of this as rubbish compared to the righteousness that comes from Christ. The word he uses for rubbish is a lot more colorful than that, but translators are a prudish bunch. Translated literally, it is, “that which is thrown from the dog.” You can fill it in. I’ve certainly picked up my fair share of it.
A righteousness that comes from the faithfulness of Christ. A community belonging that comes from Christ’s faithfulness; credentials not mine but Christ’s. That is what Paul aims for.
God intended the law to establish a just community, but we used it to make distinctions between inside and outside.
I suppose when we look at it like that, any of us could be the keepers of the vineyard, who do not produce the fruit of the kingdom. In the system we have, some have a call on the community, and some do not. We base that call on wealth, on status, on any number of things that Paul would identify with the flesh. What if, instead, a person’s status in community was given by Christ’s faithfulness?
I think that is what Paul means when he talks about us dying with Christ in baptism. We die to any other self-definition we may have besides the self-definition given in Christ. Thank goodness even Paul says that he has not yet attained this, but presses on to make it his own, or better for Christ to make him his own. We can take comfort from Paul when we see that we certainly have not arrived yet. But the prize is clear before us.
So, I don’t want to use this parable to justify supersessionism – we’re better tenants of the vineyard than the people who came before us. But I do want to use the image of the vineyard as a metaphor for God hopes for us. One summer, before I was married, I took a vacation to visit a friend who lived in Washington State. He had to work some of the days I was there, so I sat in his backyard, and ate the Concord grapes growing on his back fence while I read my book.
Juicy, sweet, and free for the taking. I think I made myself sick on those grapes, but I remember them to this day. As a metaphor for community belonging, could there be anything better? What if our city was like a vineyard, with plenty of grapes for everyone? We tend to think of justice is dry terms – equal protection under the law. What if we thought of it in juicy terms? Grapes make wine, and wine gladdens our hearts. What if justice looked like glad hearts for everyone?
Think of the kinds of things that earn us points in community. In reference to St. David’s, things like pledging, working for the Celebration of the Arts. Think of how much richer those things make your life, how much deeper they make your connection to St. David’s. But, they can also be used to exclude, and make us cliquey. That’s the distinction. Can we find ways to extend that righteousness to all? That makes life sweet and juicy.
Every city, every nation, every community, does some things well, and some things not so well. Rather than saying the tenants must be replaced, what if we used this parable to ask what fruit we could produce better? Clearly the tenants in the parable used the vineyard to exclude some people, and even to kill others. This is the bloodshed God decries in Isaiah 5 – this is the opposite of justice and righteousness. No matter how we screw up, God is faithful to God’s promises – that is the righteousness from the faithfulness of Christ. God gathers us all in to enjoy the sweet, juicy, and slightly intoxicating fruits of the kingdom. As stewards of that vineyard, we want to make sure they grow well, so there is enough to go around. That’s what the wine on the altar stands for – God’s superabundance of the good things of life, meant for all.