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
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.