By Laura Thornton
Isaiah 5:1-7 Matthew 21:33-46
In today’s readings from Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21, we hear two stories of vineyards. Jesus uses the story from the prophet Isaiah to create a parable. And we know that a parable has many ways to enter. Each time we come back to it, we can find new meaning. But let’s begin with the gospel writer, Matthew.
In Matthews gospel there is a contrast between Jesus and the world. The themes of judgement and justice are important to the writer, so we find a version of Jesus that pushes the envelope in unexpected ways. In Godly Play, our Sunday school curriculum for children, we meet Jesus entering Jerusalem as a king, but not a like a king the people expected. He didn’t have an army, he didn’t ride a horse. He was not what they thought a king would be. Matthew describes Jesus as this non-violent, meek person, whose greatest commandment is to love. Love God and love one another.
That is in stark contrast to the kingdom in which our story plays out.
Matthew sets up a world that is violent, selfish, conniving. When we get to this parable about the vineyard, we have to remember that Jesus has entered the city amidst shouts of hosanna. The people were waiting for a king. They were all watching closely to see what would happen. Jesus does turn over tables of money changers in the temple, but for several days, most of his conversations are full of parables. Sometimes he is talking to the disciples or crowds that are following him. In today’s gospel Jesus is talking directly to the chief priests and Pharisees in the temple.
He uses a kind of parable trap. He reaches back to the prophet Isaiah who describes a vineyard that is unfruitful and asks the people to decide what should be done with it. They are quick to judge, and by the end of our Isaiah scripture this morning, we see that the vineyard is referring to the people of Israel. They have judged themselves in essence and found themselves lacking.
Jesus is going to try this same trap in the temple.
He tells them a story of a landowner who planted a vineyard, built a fence around it, dug a wine press, built a watchtower and leased it to tenants. Then he went back to another country. When it was time for the harvest, the owner sent his servants to collect. But the tenants beat them, killed them, stoned them; and they killed the next group who were sent in the same way.
Finally, the landowner sent his son to talk to the tenants and collect the produce from the harvest. Surely, they will respect my son. But they saw him coming and decided to kill the son, the heir to the land. They thought, if there is no heir, then we will keep the land and the vineyard.
When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants? Jesus asks.
Jesus tells this parable of such violent behavior, then the chief priests and Pharisees declare swift judgement on the protagonists, the tenants who have killed the owners servants and even his son.
Then, when the Pharisees realize they are the protagonists, they are unable to hold themselves accountable. They quickly make plans to arrest and ultimately, kill Jesus.
I dare say that when many people hear this parable, especially people with any power, authority, privilege….we almost certainly identify with the vineyard owner. We put ourselves in the role of someone who has created a beautiful vineyard, who has generously provided jobs for others, who has sent workers to gather the harvest and bring it home. We quickly become the landowner, and are just as quick to judge those who kill our servants and even our own son.
And as soon as that word is out of our mouths, we realize like the Pharisees, that we are NOT the owner, we are not the parent mourning the loss of a son. We, instead, are the ones who have been charged with tending the vineyard. We are the ones who have become resentful and greedy. We are the ones who have elaborate plans to get rid of the owners servants and son and even the owner himself in order to have more.
The irony of having this text during this week, is not lost on me. We could layer this parable over many news stories in our world right now.
Our vineyard is a mess! We are not only the tenants who should be caring for the land, we are the land, the vines, the fence, the watchtower, the grapes.
God has created this beautiful world and we have not been fruitful in it.
We only need to look at the debate over climate change, the racial inequality and injustice in our country, the behavior of politicians and leaders, the fear and stress of this pandemic, our discounting the effects of loneliness and depression for so many, the list goes on and on and on.…
And in all of it, there is the screaming push to divide people. To move us to the left or the right in everything that is happening.
Jesus does not set up this kind of division. Jesus is giving us a story about the kingdom of God. And the question is are we taking care of the vineyard?
When we stop bearing fruit, God always calls us to try again. To turn around and dig deeper in order to be fruitful parts of God’s world.
So how are we fruitful?
How do we clean up this vineyard? How do we restore what God has created?
This summer during our vacation bible school weeks we heard stories of kids and teens who were cleaning up the vineyard. They had each found something they were passionate about. Something that impacted their life or the lives of their family and community. For some it was the work of anti-racism, for some it was the climate crisis, others worked to create organizations that provided food or shelter for people in need, some worked to protect animals in their natural habitats. It was inspiring to hear their stories, to know they were not waiting for adults to fix this world. They were not waiting to be old enough to do something. They found their passion and they were fruitful.
In the days ahead I invite you to spend some time thinking, meditating, praying, pondering about where your passion lies. What inspires you? What makes you so angry, or so sad that you want to change? What moves you into fruitful action?
It will be hundreds of different things for us.
It might look like a sign in your front yard that says Black Lives Matter, or Love is Love, or Have a Great Day! A sign could be a relief to a neighbor who is feeling isolated or vulnerable.
It might look like reading a book or joining a group to better understand what racism looks like and how it is impacting people of color AND THEN, deciding how that new knowledge is going to move you forward.
It might look like writing letters, emails, making phone calls to your representatives in Congress to let them know how you feel about issues. We are spending a lot of time at home right now. Find those emails and phone numbers and get in touch with your elected officials.
It definitely looks like voting! We all need to vote, not divided but together, as citizens of the US, we vote to keep our democracy. Make a plan and vote. You can vote by mail, you can vote early and in person, you can vote on election day. If you need help to do that, call a family member or neighbor or St. Luke’s and we will help you make a plan to vote.
It might look like having hard conversations with friends or family, not to condemn their way of thinking but to find common ground. To find ways of communicating and disagreeing without losing relationships
It MIGHT even look like getting off social media for awhile. That world of likes and heart emojis is not our real life. It is a constant flood of information, much of which is not true. It can be a tool to help us stay connected, but it is not the same kind of connection as when you sit down at a table with someone to share a meal and talk. It is not the same as being with a group of friends and listening to them talk, laugh, sing, argue. It is not the same as even having a phone call with someone where you can hear their voice, feel their joy or sadness. Those kinds of real people interactions seem harder to do right now because of social distancing. But are times when we are with others and can deeply connect with them without having our FaceBook or Instagram right in our hand.
It might look like taking seriously our baptismal covenant to love and respect the dignity of all human beings …when we do that with deep intention, we can change the world.
I invite you to find your passion, to find those things that inspire you, that are your work to make the vineyard more fruitful.
I invite you to listen deeply, to use your voice loud and clear when needed, to pay attention and to find ways big and small that you can bear fruit as we heal the vineyard, the kingdom of God.