Lectionary 27- A.
Prayer of the Day
Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 5:1-7 The song of the vineyard
Philippians 3:4b-14 Nothing surpasses the value of knowing Christ
Matthew 21:33-46 The parable of the vineyard owner’s son
Title: Shattered into Life
This is a dangerous story Jesus is telling. Dangerous for him. Dangerous for us. For him, the drum beats are intensifying and he is doing nothing to silence them. In fact, he seems to be doing everything to ratchet up the threat he poses.
Keep in mind that as we are reading from Matthew in these autumn Sundays of October and November, as we are coming to the end of the year in which Matthew’s gospel has been featured, all these parables that Jesus is telling over these weeks are set in the days of Holy Week. Today’s parable is told on the heels of last week’s story about the two sons – one who does the work of his father and one who does not. Both stories are part of the teaching of Jesus as he sits in the temple in Jerusalem the day after he has entered the city triumphantly, on that day we call Palm Sunday. He has paraded into the city making a mockery of earthly authority and power. Showing the weakness of their power and the power of his weakness. And on this day after, the topic that Jesus is teaching on is still authority. Last week the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Jesus asking “By whose authority do you do these things?” and Jesus offered them a quiz on John the Baptist’s authority – which they refused to answer, and so he told them a convicting parable – last week’s gospel reading.
And today’s reading begins with Jesus saying “Listen to another parable.” As if things were not dangerous enough for him after the last one, he is going to continue driving his point home; a point that will stir those drum beats even more. But the point is still authority. He is still answering their initial question: “By whose authority are you doing and saying these things?” And Jesus is trying to get them to see that it is not how he answers that question. It is not him telling them by whose authority. But it is about them having faith in the God by whose authority Jesus is teaching, healing, welcoming, challenging, forgiving, feeding, blessing – the ministry he is performing especially on behalf of the folks that these most self-righteous religious leaders have judged unworthy, those they see as the least of these, those they disregard as the lost, the worthless. Jesus’ authority is anchored in the mercy and grace of God and the leaders are refusing to believe it. And as long as Jesus keeps telling these stories that expose the leaders’ unbelief in his authority, things are going to get more and more dangerous for him. And we know that this means that he is making his way to the cross. Good Friday is coming. There is going to be a death. When authority is challenged, or even feels as if it is being challenged, there is usually a death.
But this story is also dangerous for us. Dangerous in a different way. Interpreting it out of context, and putting themselves on the judgement seat, some have used this story to promote the sacrilege known as Covenant Replacement – that false teaching that God repealed and annulled the Covenant promise that God made with Abraham and his descendants – namely the Hebrews – and made a new covenant with the followers of Jesus. The most dangerous outcome of this wrong teaching has been horrific and inhuman acts of anti-Semitism through the centuries. And there are dangerous theological outcomes, as well. To name a couple: 1) if God broke a promise to them, what is to stop God from breaking a promise to others, to us. There can be no faith or trust in a God who breaks promises, 2) who is to say we have done any better tending the vineyard God has given us.
I mean seriously. Have we always been attentive to God’s messengers when they bring words that challenge us and demand we give to God what belongs to God? Did we give full ear and full commitment to the justice demanding words of Martin Luther King, Jr. or other modern day prophets calling for justice and equality? Do we listen and join with those in Black Lives Matter seeking justice in the face of too many senseless deaths – and now we add Patrick Harmon of Salt Lake City to the list. Are we changing our behavior in light of the prophets of climate change who are calling us to better care of the creation God has gifted us with? Are we doing all that we can to build a peaceful community as we watch yet again as gun violence prematurely ends lives and rips hearts wide open?
It shouldn’t be too hard to put ourselves into this parable and see that we are among those wicked tenants who turn on the landowner and anyone who is sent speaking on the owner’s behalf. We too cling to what is not our own. We do not submit to God’s authority that calls us to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with God. We are blinded by our own unbelief. Thinking God, like the landowner, is far off and disconnected – even though Jesus says that in him the kingdom of God has come near. We do not believe and trust God’s abundance or God’s fairness, as we like the tenants have all that is necessary, provided for by the landowner, by God. So we cling and we hoard. Like the tenants, in our unbelief, we question and reject God’s authority.
Now I could blame my issues with authority on the fact that I was in Junior High School during that create debacle of authority – the Watergate Crisis. I spent many an hour during those formative years watching the hearings on TV in school. Our instructors, whether to teach us with this example of democracy in action or because they wanted to watch every minute of this great historical event play out, they had us watch as the parade of witnesses came before the special committee telling a story of abuse of power and authority. If hearing that testimony doesn’t cause you to not only question, but reject authority, I’m not sure what would.
So what do you blame your rejection of authority on? Unfair parents? Injustices inflicted on you?
But what of divine authority? For that we go back further and recall that Martin Luther warned us that our Old Adam and Old Eve are alive in us and are still struggling to rule the day. And so we see that those tenants who questioned the authority of the landowner, and who tried to take over by killing the son so that the vineyard would be theirs are truly heirs of Adam and Eve, just as we are. For those tenants with their actions of defiance, authority-rejecting, and control-taking, are acting in the same spirit, and with the same goals as Adam and Eve when they took their bites out of that apple hoping that the serpent was right and their action of self-assertion would make them equal to God. The first ones would take over the garden. This new breed would take over the vineyard. What is it that you want to take over? It’s all rejection of God’s authority. It’s all unbelief in the merciful God of grace who is our foundation, our strength, and our salvation. It is all putting ourselves into the position that only God fills rightly. And it all leads to death. Remember, challenging authority leads down that path.
On the other side of the coin we have the poster child of submission to authority. Authority of the Hebrew law anyway. Paul presents the Philippians with his resume. Not even straining his arm as his former self Saul pats himself on the back for fulfilling everything that the law required so that, according to the authority of the law, he would be judged righteous. But his new-creation-self Paul sees all those past accomplishments that the law called righteousness, he sees it all as rubbish, useless, empty. And submitting to God’s authority, he helplessly falls on the cornerstone Jesus. The righteous persecutor turned grace-teaching preacher is shattered and Saul is reborn Paul. This death through submission to God’s authority leads to life, new life in Christ Jesus. And for Paul, his teachings of the abundant grace and mercy of God certainly bore fruit for the kingdom. It came not through his perfection in the law. The work accomplished through Paul came through his submission, his faith, his new found hope in the grace of God, made known in Jesus, worked through the Holy Spirit.
When authority is questioned, there has to be a death. And so it is with us. When Old Adam and Eve are put to death, when we allow ourselves to be shattered on that cornerstone – then we are free to live a new life in the Spirit in which we do not question the authority of this most unorthodox messiah. We do not doubt his authority in spite of the fact that he displays it so contrary to how our world exhibits power. We do not question the authority of grace shown freely to all. And we trust the abundance and justice of God.
Oh, this submission and this new life can bring on a whole different danger in a world that continues to reject and kill the son, thinking it can take his inheritance, but as Paul learned and lived and proclaimed, everything, everything is loss in the face of the unsurpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Mark Erson,