Love is easy? #AGAPE

In 1st Corinthians 13, Paul writes that love is patient and kind; that love is not arrogant or rude; that love endures all things.  One thing he very much does not say, no matter how catchy this McFly song might be, is that love is easy.

The word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (pronounced agape’ not a reference to Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel).

It is the same Greek word used by Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson and according the Holli and Brendan on this week’s Collect Call, it serves as the basis for the word which the collect translates as “charity.”  Over on that theological treasure trove called Wikipedia, Thomas J. Oord, a modern day Nazarene Theologian, defines Agape as “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.”  Love really isn’t easy.

But why do we make it so hard?  Why is agape so impossible for human beings to pull off when we were created in the image of a God whose very definition, whose full character is love?  We’re pretty good at eros (romantic) love, storge (familial) love tends to come pretty naturally for most people, and philial (brotherly/friendship) love seems fairly doable, but it is agape love, the love that God shows us in Jesus Christ, love that seeks the good of another ahead of one’s self, that is so very hard.  Maybe it is because above all, we’re good at loving ourselves and so turning that love outward is difficult.  Maybe it is because we’ve been burned in other aspects of love and so we withhold the most intimate form of love from the cruelties of this world.  Whatever the reason, it comes down to the fact that love isn’t easy, that’s why we pray for help loving, that’s why God commands us to love, that’s why Jesus sums up the Torah as love, that’s why John tells us that God is love.  Agape love is a bar impossible to reach, but it is the goal of every human heart.

Your Holiness

According to the greatest source of theological and ecclesiastical wisdom in the history of the world, Wikipedia, the proper way to address the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope), should you meet him, is “Your Holiness.”  Some might argue that given the history of the pontificate, this title is, at best, ironic.  Some might argue that.  Heck, I might argue that, but then again, I’m not 100% sure that many of us who are ordained are worthy of the title “The Reverend” either.  The truth of the matter is that many of the men who have held the highest office in Roman Catholicism have, in fact, been men worthy of the title “Your Holiness.”  Of course, many millions of the women and men who have, over the past 2,000 years, sought to follow Jesus are also worthy of that title as well.

This week’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson gives us a portion of the Law of Moses from Leviticus 19.  First on this list of Torah is “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Way to set the bar nice and low to start with, God.  Thanks a lot.

Be holy!?!?

That’s not easy.  As I wrote about yesterday, loving God and neighbor is hard enough, but how am I supposed to be holy? I’ve got a beard, but there’s no way I’ll ever be like these guys.

My vocation means wearing funny clothes, but I’ll never live up to the standard of women like these:

Do we even know what the word holy means?  I looked in up in my handy-dandy-now-woefully-outdated copy of Bibleworks and found that the Hebrew word translated as holy means, basically, “to be set apart.”  Monks and nuns do this well, their lives are fully devoted to “being set apart,” but what about us normal, run of the mill, Christians?  How do we become holy?

The key, I think, comes in the second half of the verse.  “Be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy.”  In the life and ministry of Jesus, we have a glimpse of what it means like to live a life of holiness, a life set apart for God.  As my friend and colleague, Evan Garner, noted last week, this isn’t about asking “What Would Jesus Do?”  But rather, “What would make Jesus smile?”  What is it about our lives that when God looks upon us, makes God glad?  This, more than any other question, will help us steer away from our sinful and selfish desires, setting us apart from the prevailing narrative of this world, and aiming us toward holiness and the Kingdom of God.

So maybe this week, I’ll try to remember that according to Leviticus 19:2, my title should be “Your Holiness.”  We’ll see if that makes this Kingdom living thing any easier.

Love – Commandment – Love

I’m bad a podcasts.  There are several really great podcasts that I really wish I could get behind, but I’m just bad at it.  I’m good at reading articles.  I’m great at watching TV.  I’m awful at listening to podcasts.  Everytime I start one, within 9 seconds, I’m off somewhere else reading about things that annoy type a personalities or finding some other unnecessary distraction.

This annoys type a people. Believe me.

I tell you this to confess that though I love Holli and Brendan and the work they do with Acts 8 and The Collect Call, I don’t listen to it every week because I’m just bad at podcasts.  I will, however, tune in this week because I love, love, love the Collect for Proper 25.

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Make us love what you command.  I can’t wait to hear what they Collect Call has to say about that.  See, the coolest part about that prayer is that, in the end, we’re asking God to make us love the commandment to love: to love love; how awesome is that?  Matthew says that the Pharisees ask Jesus this final question to “test” him, but I think that’s just because Matthew is ticked off at the Pharisees.  I think that they ask Jesus about the greatest commandment because over the past few days of conflict, they’ve come to respect him in the same way Troy Polomalu might respect Peyton Manning.  Rather than testing Jesus, I like to think that they are genuinely interested in what this Rabbi from the sticks has to say about the greatest commandment.

Jesus does not disappoint.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The greatest commandment is quite simply, love.

And so, when we, two thousand years later, pray that God might help us love what God commands, we’re not asking to love the regulations against eating shellfish or the wearing of cotton-poly blends; we’re not asking to love laws about sexual purity and the place of women in society; we’re not asking to love not eating bacon or swearing oaths.  Instead, we’re asking God to help us love love, and we need God’s help because the stark reality is that love isn’t easy.  It can be hard to love God when things don’t go your way.  It can be even harder to love God when everything is coming up Milhouse.

And don’t get me started on how hard it is to love other people: liars, cheaters, close talkers, over sharers, bad drivers, even meeting extenders.  Maybe I don’t like this Collect so much after all.  I mean, asking God to help me love loving these people is asking for the hard work of cleaning out the sinfulness and selfishness in my own life to make room for others.  That seems pretty dangerous.  Of course, it all seems like exactly what God has in mind for us.

No More Questions

As October draws to a close, so too does our brief stop over in conflict land.  The ongoing and ever heightening debate between Jesus and the various religious powers-that-be in the Temple has had us dealing with difficult parables, theological nuance, and socio-political background.  At every turn, Jesus has silenced his interrogators with wisdom and conviction.  Finally, in the Gospel lesson for Proper 25A, he brings the conversation to an end.  The problem is, I can’t tell if it ends with a bang or with a whimper.

By now Jesus has silenced the Chief Priests, the Elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees: just about everybody who was anybody in First Century Israel. Not to be undone, and most likely because they were stuck in Matthew’s craw, the Pharisees come back for one more tête-à-tête.  Their final question, regarding the greatest commandment, we’ll deal with later in the week.  Suffice it to say for now that they seem to have given up on tricking Jesus by now.

In response, Jesus asks them one, final question.  “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  Everybody knows the answer to that question.  Clearly the Messiah is the Son of David.  Jesus then quotes from Psalm 110:1 and finishes with these words, “If David thus calls him Lord, how can be be his son?”  Boom!?!  Fizz!?! Pflmpt…

Did Jesus do a Mic Drop?

Matthew tells us that no one was able to answer his question and that from then on, no one dared ask him anything else.  Why?  Were they as confused as I am about the whole interaction?  Were they amazed like they had been after the whole paying taxes encounter?  Did they finally realize there was no beating Jesus at his own game?  I honestly don’t know the answer here, so if any of my wise readers wants to weigh in, I’m glad to hear your thoughts.

Life’s Certainties – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is now available for your listening pleasure on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

We’ve all heard the old saying that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  Benjamin Franklin wrote these words to his friend Jean-Baptiste Le Roy in November of 1789.  The American Constitution had just come into effect in January 1789, so Franklin was able to speak with some personal wisdom about taxes, and at 83 years of age and rapidly losing weight and energy, he was keenly aware of death.[1]  Though it really was little more than an aside in a personal letter to a friend overseas, this pithy phrase has taken on a life of its own.  Of course, it comes to mind every third year when we find ourselves back in the Temple as Matthew tells us the story of Jesus’ “taxing” conversation with the Pharisees and Herodians.

Our story begins, as most of our recent Gospel lessons have, with the understanding that Jesus was a wanted man.  You’ve heard me talk about it several times over the past month.  By now it should be clear that the religious powers-that-be wanted Jesus out of their hair for good.  His disciples had openly taunted Rome by comparing Jesus to Caesar during the parade on Palm Sunday.  He had cost them a day’s income by flipping the tables and running out the sacrifice sellers.  When they tried to challenge him on theological grounds, he humiliated them at every turn.  He was too annoying and had to go.  Which leads me to another pithy quote.

In 1870, Charles Dudley Warner wrote that “Politics makes strange bedfellows.[2]” He probably adapted the phrase from Shakespeare’s line, “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.[3]”  Both seem to apply in this case.  When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, he upended the political system that allowed for a relatively calm relationship between Israel and Rome.  The Romans loved and respected all things old, so when they took control of Israel in 63 BCE, they made several concessions for the ancient place, its people, and their religion.  Rather than require their new subjects to bow down to the Roman pantheon of gods, they allowed the Jews to continue to worship their God in their Temple, their way.  As long as the proper taxes were paid on time, the Romans didn’t interfere with how things got done in Jerusalem and most everyone was happy, except the poor, the outcast, widows, orphans, and, of course, Jesus.

Two groups stood to lose out big time if Jesus’ rebellion was allowed to take hold: the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The Pharisees, those who ensured that Temple worship went on properly despite all outside influences, hated Rome and everything it stood for, but they knew that Rome could take it all away if the people stopped paying their taxes.  The Herodians, those who argued that Roman occupation and the relative peace that came with it was actually good for Israel, knew that peace would not last if the people stopped paying taxes.  Despite their polar opposite political leanings, the fear of misery at the hand of Rome caused the Pharisees and the Herodians to join forces to trap Jesus.

“Tell us, what do you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  That’s their question: as simple as it is cunning.  If Jesus answers no, then the Herodians can turn him over to Pilate on charges of treason against the emperor.  If he answers yes, then the Pharisees can stir up the crowds against him for suggesting subservience to a pagan worshipping, foreign power.  The trap is set.

Like I said a month ago, Jesus isn’t dumb.  When two groups as opposite as Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner join forces to shower you with praise and then ask you a question dripping with political implications, it isn’t hard to see that they are trying to trip you up.  Jesus, after railing against them for their hypocrisy, defers in answering their question for a just a minute.  “Let me see the coin used for the tax,” he says.  The average Jew paid lots of different taxes to Rome and to the Temple.  There were taxes on land, taxes on purchases, taxes on imports, and taxes due on the various feast days of the year.  The tax in question here is the Census Tax, a one penny per person tax owed to the Roman’s to help pay for the occupying forces in Israel.  The Romans were very kind to Israel on most things, but this Census Tax was pretty much a punch in the gut.  Not only were you required to pay a tax to pay for the soldier who made sure you paid your other taxes, but this tax had to be paid in Roman currency.  One Denarius Tiberius per person in your household.  Jesus didn’t have one of these coins.  Presumably the Pharisees didn’t either, since the coin itself was a violation of the first two commandments: “You shall worship no other god but me” and “make no icons or graven images.”

The front of the coin showed the image of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and declared him as “The August Tiberius Caesar, Son of the god Augustus.”  The reverse carried the image of Pax, the goddess of peace, whose cult was headed by the Emperor as high priest.  Everything about this coin was an abomination to a good Jew, and yet someone in the crowd was quick to produce one when Jesus asked.  He followed up with two questions, “Whose image is this?  Whose title does it bear?”  The answer is as obvious as it is condemning, “the Emperor’s.”

Here’s where Jesus finally answers their question, but not in the way we tend to think about it.  Most translations have Jesus saying something like, “Well then, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  That’s a nice pithy quote from Jesus: kind of like death and taxes and strange bedfellows, but it doesn’t actually capture what Jesus is saying.  The Greek verb Jesus uses actually means to give back.  It is a subtle difference, but one worth paying attention to because it applies not just to the things of Caesar, but more importantly, to the things of God.  Jesus uses only one verb in this sentence.  “Give back to Caesar the stuff that belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.”  In both cases, Jesus notes that nothing we have is our own.  The coin used to pay the Census Tax was manufactured by and received its value from the Empire.  Money, be it a Roman coin or an American bill stamped with “In God we Trust” may seem like the result of our own hard work, but in reality, it only exists because we are a part of an economic system that declares it to be worth something.  If the Empire asks for it back in the way of taxes, Jesus says, then by all means give it back.

On the other hand, everything else, from the air we breathe to the lungs that transition it into our blood streams, is a gift from God.  Specifically, in his choice of language Jesus seems to point especially to the very gift of life itself.  With a nod to the first Creation story, Jesus reminds us that as humans we carry the imprint of God, having been made in his image.  Everything we have belongs to God and so our whole lives should be lived as a gift offered back to him, in thanksgiving for the blessings that we have received.  Giving back to God the things that belong to him doesn’t mean giving 10% to the Church, it means living a life of discipleship each and every moment.  It means thinking about our divine image when we shop, when we vote, when we eat, and yes, when we give to charity.  It means asking, in everything we do, is this bringing the giver of all good gifts honor and glory?  It means that death and taxes, while certain, do not have the last claim on our lives.  Instead, all of our certainty, all our hope, all our lives rest in God’s great gift of love.  A love which we are to offer back to God every moment of every day.  Amen.

[1] Albert Henry Smith, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin Vol X, 1789-1790 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1907), p. 68-69.

[2] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Charles_Dudley_Warner

[3] http://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/strange-bedfellows

On Rendering

Did you know that if you type in a single word to the Google search engine, it will give you a full definition?  It comes in handy for a guy like me who likes to use fifty-cent words, but didn’t read much in high school or college or, well, life in general, and so I have to look them up.  I used it this morning to look up the word “render” because I knew of at least two meanings.  In fact, there are six for the verb form of the word.  My favorite definition ranks fifth on Google, “to melt down fat.”  Grilling and bacon cooking are made infinitely better because of rendering, but that isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he answered the question about paying taxes from the Pharisees and Herodians by saying, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (KJV)

More modern translations tell us that Jesus said to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” (NIV) which is a good translation of render, but not so much of what Matthew has Jesus actually saying.  The Greek verb which is translated as “render” or “give” is actually apodidomai,

give back

which means “to give back.”  It is a subtle difference, but one worth paying attention to because it applies not just to the things of Caesar, but more importantly, to the things of God since Jesus uses only one verb in the sentence.  “Give back to Caesar the stuff that belongs to him and give back to God what belongs to God.”  In both cases, Jesus notes that nothing we have is our own.  The coin, a Denarius Tiberius, used to pay the Census Tax was manufactured by and received it value from the Empire.  Money, be it a Roman coin or an American bill stamped with “In God we Trust” may seem like it comes by way of our own hard work, but in reality, it only exists because we are a part of an economic system that renders (definition #2) it worth something.  If the Empire asks for it back in the way of taxes, Jesus says, then give it back.

On the other hand, everything else, from the air we breathe to the lungs that transition it into our blood streams, is a gift from God.  Specifically, in his language Jesus seems to point especially to the very gift of life itself.  In what seems like an obvious reference to Genesis 1:26, Jesus reminds us that as humans we carry the image or icon of God.  We belong to God and so our whole lives should be lived as a gift offered back to God, in thanksgiving for the blessings that we have received.  This, of course, has huge ramifications.  It means that every decision we make: from what shoes to buy to what career path to follow to how much bacon to consume; is done with God’s gift of life and grace in mind.  Giving back to God the things that belong to him doesn’t mean giving 10% to the Church, it means living a life of discipleship each and every moment.

One Denarius Tiberius Please

Jesus once said that “The Son of Man has no where to lay his head,” and apparently, he didn’t carry any pocket change either.   Here, in the midst of yet another theological debate with the religious powers-that-be, this time the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus turns the conversation on its head.  They’ve asked him, you’ll recall, if it was proper for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar, hoping that he’ll say “no” and be open to charges of treason or say “yes” and alienate most of his followers who were devout Jews who despised their Roman occupiers.  Jesus, after calling out the questioners for the hypocrisy, delays his answer by first asking to look at the coin with which the tax had to be paid.

This tax, as any number of scholars will tell you, was the Census Tax, a one penny per person tax that had to be paid by every non-Roman citizen every year in order to help fund their own occupation (talk about insult to injury).  Now, for the most part, Rome was fairly kind to the Jewish people.  Romans loved old things, and Judaism was old, so they respected the religion and for the most part allowed the Jewish people to continue their worship of YWHW and the keeping of their own religious law.  I said “for the most part” because in Sunday’s lesson, we find one glaring moment of disrespect.

Integral to that law were the 10 Commandments, which were handed down from God to Moses himself.  Commandments 1 and 2 required 1) no worship of other gods and 2) no graven images or idols.  Mostly, this was easy enough to handle, except when it came to paying the Census Tax.  It had to be paid by way of a Roman Denarius, which looked like this:

The front carried the image/icon of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, with the inscription “The August Tiberius Caesar, Son of the god Augustus.”  The back shows the image/icon of a woman named Pax, the personified image of the Peace of Rome, and hails the Emperor as High Priest, pontifex maximus.  There is nothing about this coin that doesn’t violate the first 2 of the Big 10 Rules.

Jesus, a good Jewish Rabbi, doesn’t have one of these coins.  The Pharisees made their living keeping these coins out of the Temple.  The Herodians, Jews who like Rome and who you’ll recall have buddied up to their archnemeses in the Pharisees?  Well, you better believe they’ve got one.  Right there in the middle of the Temple, they’ve got a blasphemous coin, ready to show to Jesus.  What is striking is that Jesus doesn’t say “Aha!  Gotcha!”  He doesn’t gloat over them for having the coin.  Instead, the uses it as a teaching moment.  More on that tomorrow.

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

Hatred makes for interesting bed fellows.  After a couple of days of being outsmarted by Jesus, the religious powers-that-be have retreated and regrouped.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the names have changed.  The Chief Priests and the Elders, Jesus’ original sparring partners, have been replaced by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The first item of note is that while the Pharisees were around during the time of Jesus, their rise to power came well after his death as their system of personal piety and ethnic purity from outside influence came to prominence after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Another issue is that we have no historical record, outside of a few brief mentions in the Gospels of a group called the Herodians.  Their name implies enough to give us some information about them, but we actually know almost nothing about them.  Their name, rather obviously, comes from the name Herod, the puppet king of Israel of getting drunk and riled up by his step-daughter’s dancing and giving her JBap’s head on a platter fame.  We can reasonably assume that they were pro-Hellenist Jews, strongly in favor of the Roman occupation and the support that Rome gave to the Temple system.

Here’s where things get interesting as the Pharisees, a group founded on a suspicion of outside influences on Judaism, team up with the Herodians, a group staunchly in favor of Rome’s influence in Jerusalem, in order to “entrap Jesus in what he said.”  Both sides stand to lose from Jesus’ rise to power, and so they join forces to ask him yet another question for which there is no right answer.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  Either side can charge Jesus with a crime based on his answer.  If he say “no” then the Herodians have him on treason against Rome.  If he says “yes” then the Pharisees have him on collusion with Rome.  Charges which both sides could levy on each other, but they’re not interested in that at this point.

As Holy Week ramps up, it seems as if everyone has a reason to see Jesus brought low, but Matthew continues to make it clear that it is Jesus and not these professional theologians who is in control.  Trap after trick after loaded question, Jesus sees it coming and has the perfect answer.  More on that tomorrow.

The Word of the Lord… Wait, What!?!

It is almost nine o’clock on Monday morning.  I’ve been in the office for nearly 90 minutes now.  My vacation week is over, but my brain doesn’t seem to know it yet.  I’ve done my usual Monday stuff.  I’ve sorted emails.  I’ve checked the week’s calendar.  I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday.  After a week away, I should be ready to pound out a decent Monday morning blog post, but the haze – that ungodly fog of vacation mixed with a case of the Mondays and another year of preaching “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – just won’t go away.

To make matters worse, we’ve moved into Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians for this week and the RCL powers-that-be have once been forced to make an interesting breaking point.  “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.”  The Word of the Lord!?!

With Nicolas Cage’s mug all over the place, selling the latest in the terrible “Left Behind” series of movies, the idea of our being rescued from “the wrath that is coming” takes on added baggage these days.  And to end the lesson that way, even if it is the end of the chapter, well that is just odd.  What wrath?  Coming when?  Let’s make one thing clear.  Paul does not have a pre-tribulation Rapture in mind as he writes this letter.  The Rapture is a theology that came into fashion in the early 19th century and continues to plague the world with bad movies starring Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron to this day.  We’ll deal with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the Rapture verse, more when it comes up in the lectionary in a few weeks.

What Paul probably did have in mind, here in the oldest known New Testament text, is what we call “immanent eschatology.”  The early Christians believed, rather strongly, that Jesus was coming back quickly.  The end of this world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God were expected within just a few years.  So, as Paul writes, he believes that Jesus is coming to judge the world sooner rather than later.  The wrath that will fall upon those who do not believe that Jesus is Lord is coming, but thankfully, the Christians in Thessalonica have believed and are being saved through Christ.  Despite the confusing way in which it comes to us in this lesson, that really is good news.  We who follow in the footsteps of the Thessalonians, while probably not thinking Jesus is coming back tomorrow, know that when the final judgment comes for the whole world, we who serve the one, true, and living God, rejoice in our salvation.  Thanks be to God.

Another Parable ?!? – a sermon

The audio is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it below.

As if the last five minutes between Jesus and the Chief Priests weren’t bad enough, Jesus says, “Listen to another parable.” Last week, we heard the first part of this story. It started on Sunday, as Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” while people threw palm branches on the ground. He immediately rode to the Temple where he flipped out on the money changers and sacrifice sellers and began healing anyone and everyone who came to him. Monday morning, the conflict between Jesus and the religious-powers-that-be came to a head as they confronted him, “Who do you think you are? Where did you get the authority to do these things?”
Jesus responded with a parable about two sons, both of whom failed to live into the fullness of their father’s expectations. One son said “no” to going to work in the vineyard, but eventually went. The second said “yes” but didn’t life a finger to help out. Jesus made it clear that the Chief Priests were the son that said “yes”, but were failing to live into the Father’s wishes and that even prostitutes and tax collectors were living lives of the Kingdom. If I were them, I would have walked away at this point, but they just stood there as Jesus laid into them again.
“Listen to another parable…” This time, he pulls out the big guns, quoting from the Prophet Isaiah, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower…” If you were paying attention to the first lesson this morning, you probably noticed some similar imagery. In the end of the Isaiah lesson, the prophet tells the people that the vineyard that God had so carefully tended, representing the whole house of Israel, was producing nothing but sour grapes and that God had no choice but to plow it all over and try again.
Jesus changes that story slightly. There is still a vineyard and still a landowner who gives it everything it needs to thrive. This time, however, the vines are tended to by some tenant farmers. Apparently, they do good work. The vineyard produces a quality harvest and the landowner sends some slaves to collect his portion of the fruit. Here’s where things go sour. The first set of slaves are treated terribly: one is beaten, one is stoned, and one is killed. Rightfully, the landowner could now forcibly remove the tenants from the vineyard. Instead, he decides to try again, sending even more slaves this time. They too were beaten, stoned, and killed. Rather than helping these tenants meet a miserable end, the landowner gives them one last chance: he sends his son thinking that surely they will respect him and hand over the fruit. They do not. Instead, he is dragged outside the vineyard walls and killed.
“What is the landowner to do?” Jesus asks. The Chief Priests walk right into his trap in answering, “He’ll put those wretches to a wretched death.” [rubs hands together] Indeed he will. Or will he? Remember back this summer, when I was all excited about parable season? I told you that I loved parables because they work like narrative time bombs . Jesus plants these stories in the minds of his hearers, and though they might come to an initial understanding, a much deeper meaning is sure to follow. This is one of those time bombs, with several possible meanings.
First, there is the way that the Chief Priests initially heard it with God as the landowner, Israel as the vineyard, they were the tenants, and Jesus was claiming to be the son. They rejected the parable however, because they didn’t see themselves as rebellious. To their minds, they’d been faithful to the will of God. They had been meticulous in their keeping of the Law, down to the tiniest detail. Jesus came and questioned their authority, questioned whether or not they’ve been faithful to God, but they’d become so entrenched in their understanding of God that they couldn’t possibly see that they’d failed to respond faithfully when God sent servants, like John, to call for the harvest. If they had been unfaithful, they thought, then God would have put them to a miserable death, but he hadn’t so clearly they were doing ok.
The second way to read this parable has been the prevailing understanding in Christianity for two-thousand years. Here again, God is the landowner, the Chief Priests are the tenants, the Kingdom of God is the vineyard, and Jesus is the Son. After Jesus’ death, it became quite easy to see the connection between his crucifixion outside of the walls of Jerusalem and the death of the Son outside the vineyard. As the Church became increasingly composed of Gentile or non-Jewish, Christians, this story grew into a strong polemic against the Chief Priest, the elders, and eventually the Pharisees and the whole Jewish people who were thought to be the Wicked Tenants who killed Jesus. Now-a-days, we call this understanding supercessionism. The idea being that God made promises to the people of Israel, but when they failed to follow Jesus, he superseded those promises by giving the vineyard, the Kingdom, to Gentile Christians. In time, the Church used this parable to justify treating the Jewish people as outcasts from God’s love in all sorts of terrible ways. This reading of this parable was used to justify the forced conversion and killing millions of Jews over the years, and was brought to the fullness of evil in the days of Hitler and the Holocaust. In response to that horror, Biblical scholars have spent the last seventy-plus years trying to read this parable in a new way.
I’ll spare you the liberation theology reading and the feminist theology reading and the “the Nazis are the tenants” reading and instead share with you what I think this parable says to us today. Matthew is a Gospel all about fruit. Matthew 21 is a chapter all about fruit. Today’s passage is a story all about fruit. In fact, we hear the word four times in just a few verses. Jesus begins the souring of the story by saying, “When the season of the fruit came, [the landowner] sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his fruits.” The Chief Priests, in their answer to Jesus, say that the vineyard will be given to “those who produce fruit.” Jesus agrees, emphatically declaring that indeed the Kingdom will be taken away and “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” In its original context, this is, of course, an exhortation to the Chief Priests that they had failed to offer God the fruit of the harvest; that they had become so enamored with the Temple and the worship of worship, that they had forgotten to worship the Lord God who gave it all to them. The warning does not end there, however. Matthew, writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, has already seen this happen by the hand of Rome, but he also knows that it could happen again. He uses this story as a warning to the Church that was coming into being: your newly found status is not without responsibilities, bear fruit and give God the glory, or this too can happen to you.
In the Kingdom of God, the harvest, the season of fruit, is every day. God continues to call us to produce fruit worthy of the Kingdom by caring for the poor and needy, looking after widows and orphans, visiting the sick and imprisioned, and just generally loving our neighbors as ourselves. Through this parable, we are reminded to not lose sight of the gift of a well prepared vineyard that God has given us. Bear fruit! Bear fruit in thanksgiving for God’s great love for you and for the world he has created. Amen.