In last week’s sermon, I tried to articulate what a well working relationship between a pastor and a congregation looks like using Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. If you missed the sermon, you can read it on the church’s website, wsumc.com under the Resources tab. In case you didn’t know, each week a .pdf of the sermon is posted on the website. There are also a handful of printed copies downstairs in the narthex that you can take home with you.
Last week, I opened up by naming that for a congregation and pastor to work well together, they must be vulnerable and honest with themselves, with God, and with each other. From time to time I find myself needing to confess to the congregation where I feel I still have room to grow and improve in my discipleship and leadership. Today is one of those days. I will share from time to time things about myself. As you found out last Sunday, I play the drums. I have played the drums – a variety of percussive instruments – since I was only 12 years old. Today I share with you a fault of mine. You should know, I don’t like to read.
I find little to no pleasure in the act of reading. I have had mentors along my spiritual and educational journey who suggested I read books for pleasure to spark more of an interest in the hobby; they have suggested I read non-church related books as I am getting ready to sleep at night. I tried this, and I have to admit, I do find pleasure in reading at night. Reading at night helps me fall asleep. I can’t make it through a small chapter if I’m reading in the bed … it just makes my eyes heavy, and I have to put the book on the night stand before it ends up snuggling with me as I doze off.
I don’t like to read. Now, don’t confused what I’m saying – I do read. When I read, I don’t often read books cover to cover. I have lots of books – many in my office and twice as many more at home. I know what most of the books are about and what the author has to say. At minimum, I know the gist of the books so that when I want to learn more about a certain subject, if I’m looking to educate myself around a topic, I know just which book to pick up off the shelf.
I don’t like to read – but when I do, I find myself reading quite a bit about current events. Yet, sometimes reading about current events makes me want to read less. Reading about current events in recent weeks and months especially has been quite depressing. Reading news stories from the Washington Post and others – at least from their electronic copies on my phone – I find myself wanting to stop reading so I can picture a blissful world and not face the reality of the hurt and pain experienced in every corner of the earth. To help me focus on the positive, I have a few apps on my iPhone and iPad that provide me only with the kinds of stories I want to read. These apps, like Zite and Flipboard, provide for me articles based on my personal preferences. The deliver me only stories about the latest and greatest technological tools, places to visit in the world, how to be a better photographer … these readings are my pleasure readings. Short excerpts with a lot of photos and some videos – reading at its finest.
I don’t like to read – but I find myself enthralled by the written Word of God. Whether it be snippets of scripture shared by friends on Facebook, devotionals, or reading in the midst of sermon preparation – I find myself engaged in God’s Word. When I sit down to prepare for a sermon, after reading the scriptural text for the week, I read the thoughts, commentary, and ideas of no less than five to ten scholars and preachers. I find that I agree with some and strongly disagree with others, but I find that the shared passion they have for understanding God’s Word resonates with me.
Today’s text offers a prime example of this. For many of the same reasons I dislike reading about the troubles of the world in current events, I find myself drawn to God’s Word even more.
Today’s parable, an allegorical story, offers a lot of insight as to why we find ourselves around the world today offering such hatred toward one another – why there is so much negativity expressed and experienced among our world community.
Hear now the Word of God from the Gospel of Matthew …
33‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘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.’
42Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
Jesus has made his way into Jerusalem prior to the Passover feast. He has been in the temple teaching and has faced a lot of negativity from the temple leaders – the Pharisees and other rabbinical leaders. The leaders are waiting for Jesus to make one error in his teaching so they can denounce him as a rabbi, claim fault in his teaching, and quell the following he has accrued who are praising him as a healer and miracle worker.
Jesus tells a series of parables to the Jewish leaders and those gathered in the temple. Parables told by Jesus were designed to offer a glimpse of understanding into the will of God for the people to whom Jesus was speaking. By understanding what Jesus was trying to say to the Jewish leadership through this parable, we too may glean some understanding of God’s will for our lives today.
There are a number of players in this story told by Jesus. There is the landowner, the tenants, the slaves, and the son. Then there is the vineyard. Jesus, like any good preacher, basis his teachings on relevant scripture. For this parable, Jesus pulls from Isaiah 5:1-7. This text, which would have been well known by the Jewish temple leaders, is known as the Song of the Vineyard. The connection is strong, but the problem faced in the vineyard in Jesus’ parable is different than that of the vineyard in Isaiah 5. Emerson Powery in his commentary on this text notes that in Isaiah 5, the problem with the vineyard was that the vines weren’t producing good grapes.[i] Here in Jesus’ parable, the harvest is great, but the tenants are a problem.
Being an allegorical story, each of the players in the story directly represents another party. Among scholars, there is little debate that the landowner is representative of God. The Greek word for landowner is oikodespotes, a word that is often translated as household master. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commonly connects this word with God’s reign. Powery says that God is often referred to as the landowner in Matthew’s Gospel because it was Jesus’ understanding God owns all the land.[ii]
The tenants are understood to refer to the Jewish leaders; the slaves are understood to refer to the prophets. The prophets had been sent by God to the leaders in Israel, only they were time and time again turned away, ignored, and were at times killed, just as the tenants treat the slaves in the parable.
Then there is the son of the landowner – an obvious connection to Jesus, as the Son of God.
In reflecting on the parable, why would the landowner send his son, knowing the tenants had ignored the slaves, killing them instead of respecting them? Why would the tenants treat the son any better? Perhaps there was an expectation that the son would carry more respect, as the direct heir of the landowner. Yet the tenants thought it best to kill the son, expecting that by doing so, they would receive the Son’s inheritance.
Having set up the story line for the landowner to make a final visit the tenants, Jesus asks the temple leaders, what will the landowner do to the tenants when he arrives?
The religious leaders first thought, which is reflected in their response, is that the landowner will respond in vengeance.[iii] Their response is indicative of their conscious belief, naming perhaps how they would have responded if they were the landowner.
Jesus’ then recalls Psalm 118:22-23: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Susan Grove Eastman in her commentary on this passage in Matthew says that though Jesus is inferred to be the Son, known by us to be the stone the builders rejected, this knowledge would have been lost on the audience of Jesus in telling the parable.[iv] His audience, the temple leaders, were too blind in their own self-righteousness to understand Jesus’ connection and reference to himself in the Psalm.
Yet we follow the parable – the vineyard is taken from the tenants, and given to new tenants to offer care for the vineyard. There is a new caretaker of the vineyard, and that new caretaker is found in the establishment of the church. We – the church of Christ – are the ones expected to then care for the vineyard.
So what then, in the allegorical story, is the vineyard? … Read verse 43 closely, Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”
Douglas Hare clarifies, as there is question among some scholars and believers as to whether or not the vineyard represents Israel or the Kingdom of God. Hare assures his belief that verse 43 very clearly has Jesus referring to the vineyard as the Kingdom of God. And that the church is not a specific gentile church – as was being formed in the region surrounding Israel – but that the church “transcends the old [Jewish versus Gentile] distinction.”[v]
So then we – the established church – which was given the responsibility of being the care taker of the kingdom of God – which was established to participate in God’s mission of redeeming the world – we must now answer the unasked question, are we living up to the role given us by God?
Do we, like the tenants, deny God what rightfully belongs to God as the landowner, the creator of all things? To deny God as landowner is to reject God. When we reject any part of God’s creation, we reject God. When we deem something as not belonging on earth, as something or someone unworthy to associate, we reject part of creation, and thus reject God.
Our nation, this great land of the free – the home of the brave – we claim to have been founded upon Christian principles. Yet look at our history as a nation – we have a history of rejecting people, as deeming some as merely being ‘others.’ This was and is witnessed in how we treat the natives who lived on the lands when the first colonizers arrived; this was true for 246 years of slavery on American soil; it still remains true today with the continual prejudice present in society – a prejudice that is apparent in the way the government and many among us treat immigrants, in the way the American work force treats women, in the way some races are treated as less worthy or less human.
To help us not feel too bad about ourselves, this treating some as ‘others’ – rejecting some as unworthy of life – is present across the globe. Consider the Holocaust, Apartheid in South Africa, the Settlements in the West Bank, ISIS’s brutal savagery – these are all in the history books because one group felt another was less than significant in God’s creation.
It’s time we acknowledge our failure as a church to speak up as the named tenants of God’s kingdom. It’s time we become more faithful to our calling as such tenants. It’s time we not only acknowledge our role in the brokenness of society – but in naming our failure, it’s time to seek a better way forward. It’s time we no longer see those with varying races, genders, cultural habits, and personal life decisions as ‘others,’ but see them in the more complete vision of God’s creation – as part of what makes God’s creation so grand.
Yes, there are 7.3 billion people in the world – that’s a lot of people to love and to welcome into God’s kingdom – but this is our chosen task. For from God, we have been entrusted and created to help offer God’s redeeming love to the world. For this is God’s world, and we have been called to be good stewards, tenants of this mighty creation.
May we not fail like our ancestors in the faith; may we accept the stone the builders rejected as the cornerstone – may we embrace the Risen Christ as the foundation of our faith; may we be workers of the kingdom, that all may be welcomed into God’s arms, and that creation may together be amazed at God’s great work in Jesus Christ.
May we once more find ourselves humbled at the great work of God in creation, and be servants of a world that was, is, and will be the masterful work of the Almighty. Amen.
[i] Emerson Powery. http://www.workingpreacher.org. Retrieved 9-30-14.
[ii] Emerson Powery. http://www.workingpreacher.org. Retrieved 9-30-14.
[iii] Richard E. Spalding. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
[iv] Susan Grove Eastman. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
[v] Douglas R. A. Hare. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.