October 4, 2020 – Proper 22A
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I took night classes at Troy University in my spare time. Although the main campus of the university was located in a small town an hour or so away, Troy had established a satellite campus in downtown Montgomery by purchasing and renovating several out-of-use buildings, including the old Whitley Hotel. Although dormant for decades, the hotel was a majestic building with an elegant lobby and a grand staircase that wound up to the upper floors, and the university did the city a favor by bringing it back to life.
In the middle of the repurposed lobby was a large and detailed mosaic, which featured the emblem of the university. Legend had it that, not long after Troy bought the old hotel, university officials had the original mosaic painstakingly replaced, tiny tile by tiny tile, to further cement its presence in the urban community. But, when the work was finished, something wasn’t right. Part of the emblem wasn’t exactly the way it was supposed to be, and the university’s president, an exacting sort of woman, insisted that it be done again.
As the artisan chipped up the mistaken portion of the mosaic in order to redo it, the president walked through the lobby and asked the worker how everything was going. Frustrated, the laborer responded with little more than a grunt, so the president asked him what was wrong. Not realizing who it was that was speaking to him, he replied, “Some witch is making me do this all over again,” only he didn’t use the word “witch.” She replied, “Oh really? Well, guess what: I am that witch. Pack up your things. You’re fired.”
When we fail to recognize the authority of those standing in front of us, we shouldn’t be surprised when judgment comes crashing down upon our heads.
Today’s gospel lesson is all about authority. Will we recognize and respect Jesus’ authority, or will we substitute our own version of right and wrong in its place? As Suzanne noted last Sunday, this chapter of Matthew is filled with expressions of and challenges to Jesus’ authority. First, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” as if he were prepared to claim the throne of his ancestor David. Then, he went straight to the Jerusalem temple, where he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple precincts, effectively halting the worship that was taking place there. All the while, the religious authorities watched Jesus perform these prophetic and symbolic gestures, which both questioned their legitimacy and asserted his own authority in their place. Something had to give. The crowds were cheering for the radical rabbi, but, behind the scenes, the people in power were plotting his demise.
Exasperated and probably a bit nervous, the religious leaders came to Jesus and asked him to explain by what authority he was performing these radical, divisive, and lawless acts. How could a religious figure like him allow himself to be at the center of such unrest? In response, he told them two parables—the parable of the two sons, which we heard last week, and the parable of the wicked tenants, which is our focus today.
“Listen to another parable,” Jesus told them, a parable about a landowner who carefully and deliberately prepared a vineyard before leasing it to some tenants and going off to another country. It must have taken more than a few years of hard work by those tenants before the vines began to produce their fruit. Eventually, though, it was time for the landowner to collect his share of the harvest, so he sent some servants to get what was his due—the portion that had been agreed upon back when the vineyard had originally been leased to those tenants.
But the tenants weren’t interested in giving up any of the fruit of their labor. They were the ones who had worked hard every day, season after season, bearing the heat of the summer sun, pulling up weeds, pruning back the vines, carefully nurturing the tender shoots until harvest time. They had done all the work, they told themselves, so every bit of the produce should be theirs. They didn’t care whose land it was, who had made all of the improvements to it, who had hired them to take care of it. So they attacked the landowner’s slaves, beating and killing and stoning them. And, when the landowner sent a second group of slaves, even more than the first, they treated them in the same way. Finally, the landowner recognized the need for serious action, so he sent his son, his agent, someone who could officially speak for the family and engage the local officials if needed, but the tenants refused even to respect the landowner’s son. Instead, they convinced themselves that, once the heir was out of the way, the vineyard would be theirs. So they killed him.
No one except for the tenants was surprised at what happened next. Even the religious leaders, to whom Jesus had addressed this hardly masked parable of condemnation, knew what the landowner would do to those wicked tenants. They knew that they would be rounded up and executed for their lawlessness. No matter how firmly they had convinced themselves that their ridiculous plan would work, the tenants were always going to be punished for their refusal to respect the one in whose vineyard they had labored.
It is a hard message for those of us who prefer our brand of Christianity to be the open, accepting, universal variety to hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from someone and given to someone else. But, in an age in which the words of Jesus and the authority of the church are used by some even to legitimize evil, it is a truth that we must confront.
What does it mean for Jesus to proclaim that God’s kingdom will be taken away from the religious leaders and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom? You may have been taught in the past that this parable is about God’s favor being withdrawn from the children of Abraham and bestowed upon Gentile Christians, but that isn’t true. The church, at times infected with the sin of anti-Semitism, has made that claim, but this parable isn’t about chronology. It’s not about the vineyard being taking away from those who came first and given to those who come second. It’s about the responsibility to be faithful when the opportunity presents itself.
As the prophecy of Isaiah 5 makes clear, God takes the vineyard away from those who forget whose vineyard it really is—those who forget that God is the one who requires justice and rejects bloodshed, who demands righteousness and will not abide the cry of the suffering. If you read the rest of that chapter of Isaiah, you will see that the people in power had used their authority to take possession of the land of the vulnerable, to throw lavish banquets for themselves while people in the streets were hungry, and to acquit the guilty in exchange for a bribe. Jesus picked up on this image and made it the center of his parable because the religious leaders of his own day had done the same thing. They had forgotten whose vineyard it really was. They had forgotten that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. They had ignored the plight of those who were eager to line the sides of the road and shout, “Hosanna!” as Jesus came into Jerusalem. They had turned their backs on the blind and the lame who Matthew tells us flocked to the temple to be healed by Jesus as soon as he had chased the moneychangers out.
Whose vineyard are we working in? In whose kingdom are we called to bear fruit? Do we recognize the authority of the one who comes to collect the landowner’s due? Or have we been working so long that we have forgotten that the fruit of our labor actually belongs to someone else?
The blind and the lame do not need any help recognizing Jesus as the one who comes to bring God’s kingdom to the earth. The poor and the weak don’t need him to tell them a parable in order to see whose authority he represents. It is always the powerful, the rich, and the well-connected who need to be reminded what sort of reign Jesus has come to establish. On the spectrum that extends from religious elites to social pariahs, I can tell on which end most of us belong. Maybe that’s why we need Jesus more than most people—because, left to our own devices, we might begin to think that this vineyard we inhabit is our own doing, that we are responsible for its produce, and that its bounty belongs to us. It doesn’t. And, as long as we remember that, God will help us bear fruit for the one to whom the kingdom belongs.