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.

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Let’s stop all this stupid talk

I have a confession to make.  My eldest child, FBC, loves Spongebob Squarepants.  She gets it honest, her mother and I were known to watch it well into our twenties.  To say it is a show that she shouldn’t be watching is probably an understatement, but she’s a PK and we don’t want her to be a victim of her circumstances, so we fudge some.  There are rules to watching Spongebob however.  We tend to be selective about which episodes get chosen from the DVR library, and that standing rule in our house is if you say the word stupid, you can’t watch Spongebob.  FBC knows the rule so well that she’ll correct anyone and everyone she hears saying the forbidden word.  “Uh Oh, so-and-so can’t watch Spongebob,” has been heard on multiple occasions.

After three days of trying to figure out just who is stupid in the ongoing brew-ha-ha between Jesus and the Chief Priests in Matthew 21, three days of not being allowed to watch Spongebob (thankfully), it is probably time to move on to something just a bit deeper; something more theologically astute; something like fruit.

The 21st chapter of Matthew is ripe with fruit imagery (pardon the pun).  We have the famous story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.  There’s the Parable of the Two Sons called to go to work in the vineyard.  This Sunday, we hear and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants and Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom belongs to those who “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”  According to the folks at Sermon Brainwave, Matthew is fond of the fruit metaphor.  He’s not arguing works righteousness, but that the sign and symbol of life in the Kingdom is a life that bears fruit. Those who claim to be disciples of Jesus show their devotion by feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, loosing the bonds of oppression, clothing the naked, and caring for the marginalized (Mt 25.31ff).

The world today is ripe (there I go again) with opportunities to bear the fruit of the kingdom.  How will you be fruitful today?

So… Is God Stupid?

In Sunday’s sermon, I posited that Jesus was not stupid.  In yesterday’s post, I suggested that the Chief Priests and the Elders might have been.  Today, I’m wondering, as I do every time the Parable of the Wicked Tenants comes around: Is God Stupid?  Clearly the landowner was.  Why in the heck did he think that sending his son, after the tenants had beaten and killed any number of slaves, was in anyway a good idea?  If he was going to diffuse the situation, shouldn’t he have gone himself and either a) fixed things with his magical landowner powers or b) killed the lot of them in a messy and violent way?

This is, of course, the argument that many people make about God.  Why did he send his Son to do the dirty work?  Didn’t he know what was going to happen?  Surely, if he’s omnipotent, omniscient, and all powerful, God could have fixed the mess that is humanity by either a) waving a magic grace wand to make us all suck less or b) kill us all in a messy and violent way (cf. Noah and the flood).  So what gives?  Is God stupid?

Well, yes and no.  Love makes us do stupid things sometimes, and God seems to be no exception.  Out of an abundance of love, God created the world and everything in it.  Out of an abundance of love, God created humanity in his likeness to be in relationship with him.  Out of an abundance of love, God attempted again and again to restore the relationship once we broke it.  And out of an abundance of love, God sent his only Son to save us from our selves.  This are all crazy, stupid actions on God’s part.  He didn’t do them ignorantly.  He knew what was coming.  He knew there were other ways to fix it, but he also knew that the best way, the way that allowed all of this to be about the abundance of love and not some forced relationship or blood nightmare, was to send his Son to live and die as one of us; to feel the fullness of our humanity; to enter into real relationships with real people; and to be raised on the third day to make the whole thing new.

Is God stupid?  Yep, stupid enough to love.

Why do they keep listening?

In my sermon yesterday, I made the assertion that Jesus was not stupid.  This brought about a few chuckles, probably because the idea of Jesus not being the smartest person in every room is absurd to many.  As a modern-day religious authority, I wish I could say that the Chief Priests and the Scribes weren’t stupid either, but based on the way things go in Matthew 21, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Their best question, the one they planned all night in an attempt to trap Jesus in blasphemy, was a weak noodle.  And then, as Jesus launches into a three parable tirade on how awful they are at leading the people of Israel into a full relationship with God, they just stand there slack jawed.  Why do they keep listening?

At the end of the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus makes a very pointed statement toward the religious power-that-be, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him: and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds (“metanoia” = repent) and believe him.”

Following the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, a particularly awful parable, Matthew tells us that they finally realized that he was speaking about them, but for fear of the crowds they did nothing.  Here’s where I really begin to wonder about these people.  I mean, they didn’t have to arrest him, but surely they could have turned around and walked away, but no, they stayed for yet another Parable.

Finally comes the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which we’ll hear on October 12th.  This is perhaps the harshest of the three and ends with people either dead or cast into outer darkness.  Finally, they figure out they have offices to retreat to and they go off to scheme some more, but seriously, why did they stay so long?  Just to give Jesus the chance to tell three particularly harsh parables?  Probably not.

Here’s what I think.  These guys are proud men.  They’ve worked hard to get to their place of prestige and they aren’t likely to give it away easily.  My gut tells me that they stick around for two conflicting reasons.  First, and probably foremost, they stay to save face.  If they turn and walk away with their tails between their legs, it gives Jesus all the momentum.  Second, and perhaps more sympathetically, they are heavily invested in the faith of Israel.  There must be some small part of them that wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah; some part deep in their bones that feels hope even as he speaks judgment against them.  Yes, Jesus is growing increasingly inconvenient for them, but the people are drawn to him and the people seem to have been right about John the Baptist.  Maybe, just maybe, they’ve found their hearts strangely warmed in Jesus’ words to them.  It won’t last, however.  Things are about to get much, much worse.  Yet for now, something keeps them listening.  I wonder what it was.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit.