October 5, 2014
We are no strangers to warning labels in our society. It seems that just about everything we use or consume or touch or even smell has a warning attached to it. Pharmaceutical advertising is a stand-up comic’s dream come true, because while an ad spends 50 seconds of a 60 second spot touting a new medication’s amazing, miraculous, curative benefits, it spends the last 10 seconds listing every conceivable side effect. More often than not, the side effects sound worse than the illness that warrants the medication. But if the warnings weren’t given, whether it’s on a new medication or something else, there would be an outcry. We believe we should be warned about something potentially dangerous or threatening to our health or well-being.
That being said, I sometimes think the same should be true for scripture. Before a page is turned in the Bible, there should be a warning that if we’re going to read it, we read at our own risk. Maybe we need an even stronger admonition, like the robot on the old television show, Lost in Space. “Danger, danger, Will Robinson.”
I don’t say this to be irreverent. I say that because I truly believe that being faithful means that we have to read scripture on its terms, not ours. Doing that might force us to not only see God differently, but to see ourselves differently, and vice-versa. This passage from Matthew could do just that. So we read and hear at our own risk.
One thing that I read over and over again in my study of this passage is that this particular parable told by Jesus has been used to justify anti-Semitism. Repeatedly. If we read this story as pure allegory, it’s easy to see how that happens. As we have heard over the last few weeks, Jesus is in the final days before his arrest and crucifixion. He is still in the temple. He is still in a confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities. They want to stop him, silence him, at any cost. So as we read last week, they challenged his authority. Jesus responded with a parable about a vineyard, a father and two sons. Today we hear another parable. This one also takes place in a vineyard. The vineyard would have been a relatable, familiar example to the people listening to Jesus. In this story a vineyard was planted by a landowner. The landowner plants it, puts a fence around it, digs a wine press, and builds a watchtower. This was what any responsible landowner would have done. He leaves the vineyard in the hands of his tenants, and goes to another country. When harvest time rolls around, he sends his slaves or servants to the tenants to collect his share of the harvest. Again, this would have been standard practice. But the tenants turn on the slaves. They beat one, they kill another, and they stone a third. Yet the landowner doesn’t retaliate. Instead he sends more slaves to them, and those slaves are treated the same way.
I suspect that everyone who heard Jesus tell this was thinking that surely the landowner would now rain down punishment, rain down vengeance on the heads of the tenants. It was bad enough that they beat and killed the first slaves sent to them, but to do that a second time? No landowner would put up with that. But here’s the twist. Not only did the landowner not retaliate, he sent his son. Surely, he thinks, his son will be respected. Surely they won’t harm the landowner’s own flesh and blood. But when the tenants see the son approaching, they plot. “Let’s kill the son, and then we’ll receive the inheritance.” So they seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard, and kill him too.
When Jesus finishes his story, he asks the Pharisees, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The Pharisees respond, “He will put those wretches to death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Just as Jesus did in the parable of the father and the two sons, the question that Jesus asks of the Pharisees puts them in a position to condemn themselves. Last week the one who does the will of the father is the one who said, “no,” to the father’s request, then changed his mind. But the one who said, “yes,” then doesn’t is in the wrong. This week, the ones who refuse to give the share of the harvest to the landowner, the ones who kill the slaves and son of the landowner, then have the audacity and sense of entitlement to believe that the inheritance will still come to them, are the ones who will be put to a miserable death. They are the ones who will lose their place in the vineyard to others. The point of the parable seems obvious. Jesus says it. The Pharisees are the wicked tenants.
If the Pharisees are the wicked tenants who kill not only the slaves, but the son, then it’s not difficult to make the leap that the Jews are the ones who are sent out of the vineyard, and the Christians are the new tenants who “produce at the harvest time.” Reading it this way makes it an “us versus them” scenario. But here is where the warning label is needed. What makes us think that we – Christians, good church goers, etc. – are always the good guys? Jesus pushed the Pharisees and the religious leaders and all those who thought they knew God’s will to realize that God was and is doing a new thing. God would not be limited by their dogma. Nor will God be limited by ours. Jesus goes on to quote, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
Yes, reading this strictly as allegory, it is far too easy to point fingers and make judgments and believe that we got it right. Warning. We should never assume. But you know what’s really troubling about this passage? You know what really bothers me about the story that Jesus tells? The landowner must have been a fool. Why did he persist in sending people to these tenants? Why did he not learn after the first time? There is nothing that I read in the passage that suggests that somehow the landowner was oppressive or evil or deserved this kind of violent response from his tenants. But they did respond to every person he sent to them with violence. I don’t think anyone hearing this parable would have blamed the landowner if, after the first time his slaves were beaten and killed, he had retaliated in kind. But he didn’t. He just sent more people. He sent his son. What a fool.
But if this story, whether it’s meant to be heard and read allegorically or not, reflects on God in any way, shape or form, then doesn’t that mean that God is foolish? Is God foolish? Is God’s love, God’s persistent, unending, unconditional love, foolish?
Maybe it is. But then again, it all seems foolish, doesn’t it? It’s foolishness that God is born as a helpless, homeless baby. It’s foolishness that God suffers and dies. It’s foolishness that God takes on this weak and finite flesh of ours to show us what it really means to be human, to open our eyes to the kingdom right here in our midst. God does everything a fool would do. God doesn’t give up on us, even though we deserve it. God doesn’t stop loving us, even though we would stop loving someone else who treated us the way these tenants treated the landowner; the way we treat the Creator and the Creation. God persists for our sake, foolishly. It is a foolish love, and an undeserved and unreserved forgiveness, and an extravagant grace that God has for us. It’s foolish. Isn’t it? Paul says that the cross is foolishness. As the cornerstone of God’s new thing, Jesus says that “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
I’ve always heard those words as terrible, violent punishment, a terrible, violent judgment. But perhaps what it really is foolish. Perhaps the only way that we can truly recognize and feel and respond to God’s foolish love is when we our hard hearts and our closed minds are finally broken open. I know that in my own life, it has been those moments when I feel the most lost, those moments when I have felt the most alone, when I had nothing left but to cry out to God; those were the moments that I found God was right there beside me. It was where God had been the whole time, loving me: extravagantly, unreservedly, foolishly.
Today, as we come to the table to take bread and wine, we do so knowing that Christians around the world are doing the same. To many people it must seem like a foolish thing to do. How can just eating a piece of bread and swallowing a bit of wine be sacred? How does this one act proclaim hope when the world is so hurting, so broken? Maybe in the eyes of the world it is foolish, but this bread and wine reminds us that we are more alike than we are different. Whatever our language or look, we come to this table in hope that love still has the power to overcome evil, that light can still conquer the darkness, that peace is not just a fleeting dream. We come to this table hopefully, trustingly, foolishly, knowing that the good news, the amazing, wonderful, overwhelming good news, is that God loves us foolishly first. Praise be to God for that foolish love. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.