Lessons: Matthew 21:33-46

This is not the parable I’d have hoped would pop up in the lectionary this week. Haven’t we had more than enough violence, this week? This is not a pretty parable. It begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner does everything he needs to do to establish a working, productive vineyard and then he leases it to tenants to run things while he’s away. At harvest time, he sends his servants to collect his share as the owner and entrepreneur. But the tenants beat and even kill his servants. He sends more servants, and the same thing happens. And so then he sends his son, and the thugs kill him too, hoping that if there’s no heir, and the landlord stays abroad until he dies, then maybe they’ll inherit the vineyard.

It seems like a hair-brained scheme. Do they really think they’ll get away with it? It reminds me of an “I Love Lucy” or “Seinfeld” plot, except it isn’t remotely funny – but then, I never thought Lucy or Seinfeld were funny, either. Don’t these people – Lucy, Seinfeld, the tenants – don’t they all realize that eventually all the lies will unravel and they’ll be exposed? Jesus seems to think so. After telling the parable, at least according to Matthew, Jesus asks, “When the owner of the vineyard returns, what will he do to those tenants?” Right on cue, the religious leaders fall for the trap hook, line, and sinker: “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who’ll give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Okay, first notice that it wasn’t Jesus who said those words about the miserable wretches. It was his audience that assumed the vineyard owner would be vengeful and violent. Still, Jesus follows with the punch line to this dark joke. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures? The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.” Jesus didn’t make many friends that day. After that, they begin plotting to kill him.

So here’s the problem with this parable: In its context, it reflects a bitter sibling rivalry.   The person who wrote these words, Matthew, was part of a community of new Christians. They were in the minority, suffering hardship and probably persecution from non-Christians. Understanding this vulnerability, I can sympathize with this response. But I still regret it, because when Christianity went from persecuted minority to the majority religion of the Roman Empire and grew into the most powerful political and cultural force in Europe, these same verses and others like them helped to justify centuries of mistreatment of Jews by Christians. Violence yet again.[1]

This parable is not about Jews or non-Christians. Certainly, the religious elite in this story are Jews – but so is Jesus. So what might this passage say to us today?

While part of the message to us is in the parable itself, this morning perhaps an even more important message lies in the fact that Jesus told this parable to this audience, to the religious leaders. Jesus is calling out leadership that hurts and harms the people. He’s calling out leaders who have not been good tenants, who not been good stewards of the privilege of leadership. He’s pointing a finger at leaders who have forgotten that central to leadership is the faithful care of those under their charge. Jesus is speaking truth to power.

Speaking truth to power is risky and scary but ultimately, it is an expression of hope, and hope is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Speaking truth to power says not only that things ought to be different but they can be. In the face of a tragedy like last weekend’s massacre in Las Vegas, it is easy to lose hope, hope that anything can change. This kind of hopelessness is exactly what Jesus encountered in his ministry, again and again. Picture Jesus, wandering through the villages of Galilee, walking among his own oppressed and dominated people. Their hopelessness left them paralyzed between two versions of despair – the violent despair of the terrorist or the resigned despair of going along with the way things are. In our own time, it’s the despair of the shooter at the Las Vegas concert or of the person who drove a car into a crowd in Charlottesville, over and against the despair of the denial that all around us, people are being deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and doing anything to keep from seeing it or feeling it or being changed by it. Like heading to the mall, or having another drink or pill, or hiding behind a religion focused on tallying up points for getting into heaven instead of changing ourselves and our world.

Now, faced with this hopelessness, Jesus didn’t fix all their problems. He didn’t organize an army or hatch a plot, and – this is important – he didn’t scapegoat anybody. If anything, he kept letting scapegoats off the hook, taking their side, which got him in hot water with the religious elite, who found it very handy to have scapegoats around. Instead, Jesus simply let the people know he liked them; loved them, in fact – and so did God; that he was interested in them, that they didn’t have to be ashamed of who they were. He came close to them in their illnesses, wept with them at the graves of their loved ones, ate at their tables, drank their wine, listened to their words, let himself be injured by their pain – and although it isn’t recorded in any of the Gospels, I imagine he laughed at some of their jokes, too.

He did one other thing: he told people about the Kingdom of God. The term is so familiar to us that we might miss how wild it really was. It wasn’t an if/then statement – if you do this and this and this, then you’ll get that result. That would have been more pressure, right? That would just be another chance to fail. Instead, he told them it was already true: the kingdom of God is here. Not here in full flower, to be sure. But here in reality, nevertheless. Whether you believe it or not, whether you notice it or not, whether you like it or not. All he invited them to do was believe it. And somehow, some of them did.

This is the hope upon which our faith is built. Because God loves us, God calls us to something better, more just, more safe, more peaceful, not just for some but for all, and that is not only possible but we can see it, live in it, become it. Brian McLaren writes, “The kingdom of God is like a bridge partially built. We who believe in the destination to which the bridge leads, we who can ‘see’ the promised land on the other side, walk out on the unfinished bridge, carrying building materials, and through our faith and work, we extend it farther and farther out over nothingness day after day.”[2]

The building material we see Jesus use in today’s passage is speaking truth to power. Therefore, it is one of our building materials. William Sloane Coffin wrote, “Hope criticizes what is. Hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists. Hopelessness adapts.”[3]

In the days following the tragedy in Las Vegas, a familiar rhythm of grief emerged. Politicians, religious leaders, and other public figures offered “thoughts and prayers” to those afflicted. This response has become so common that many see it essentially as just a performance, an act that too often replaces action. I learned this week that it’s even the title of a sardonic video game in which players are challenged to use “thoughts and prayers” to stop school shootings. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers. We people of faith take prayer seriously. We need to lament, grieve, cry out “How long, O Lord?” – and pray. Prayer, after all, is being in relationship with God, opening us up to hearing what God is calling us to do. But prayer is just the starting place. Prayer is not supposed to help us adapt to this insanity. It’s supposed to give us hope, to strengthen us and give us clarity to act, and, if it is our gift and calling, to speak truth to power in the ways that we can. This isn’t easy. We all know the issues surrounding gun violence in this country are complicated, entrenched in the culture, and emotionally charged. There are no simple answers. But our leaders are charged with caring for the good of the people, and it’s time for them to take that seriously. It is time for us to remind them.

It might help us understand this parable if we remember where Matthew’s story is taking us. There is an act of violence in Jesus’ future, the crucifixion of the innocent son, just like in the parable. But then, Jesus’ story isn’t just like the parable, because rather than return violence for violence, in the cross of Jesus God absorbs the violence of frightened, misguided humans and responds with life, with resurrection, with the ultimate hope that not even death can get in the way of God’s will and God’s way. Whatever Matthew remembered that Jesus said to these leaders at this moment, Jesus’ actual deeds are quite different. He does not return with vengeance, he does not kick anyone out of the kingdom. Instead, the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst that our violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the kingdom to the very ends of the earth, promising to be with them always.

That good news means in part that violence does not and will not have the last word. That tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace. Maybe the religious leaders’ response, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” is all they could imagine. Maybe it’s all Matthew could imagine. At times it seems it’s all our leaders can imagine, and perhaps all we can imagine, too. But goodness is stronger than evil. Violence does not, will not, have the last word.

So today, let us grieve. Let us lament. Let us offer our thoughts and prayers. And then let us get to work. Let us walk out on that unfinished bridge, carrying the building materials that God has given each one of us individually, including, for some of us, to speak truth to power, that we might extend it farther and farther out, day after day.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] David Lose, “Words Not Deeds,” October 6, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/10/pentecost-18-a-words-and-deeds/.

[2] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 276.

[3] William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville , KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 19.

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