- Parish House
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
As a young adult, my plan was to marry the owner of a vineyard in the wine country of California. I didn’t actually know one, which made my plan somewhat difficult to achieve. But my friends and I would take study breaks and go wine tasting from time to time, usually in Sonoma where you could still get in for free. I’d look out over the rolling hills of perfectly planted rows of grapevines, taking in the aromas of the region and daydream about what it would be like to actually live there. It seemed so peaceful, so perfect. Frankly, it seemed like life as God intended. It would be hard work, but who wouldn’t want to work in God’s beautiful garden and end each day with incredible cheese plates and wine pairings? It was a great dream.
When I met my future husband in seminary, I took him wine tasting one weekend. You know, secretly to see if he might consider a career change if the priesthood didn’t work out. He seemed to enjoy the day, though I found out later that he doesn’t particularly like wine. For many reasons, I had to scrap my plan to marry a vintner, and plan B turned out well. But I still hold the vineyard in my heart as a vision of what life could be.
We’ve been in the vineyard in the Gospel of Matthew for a couple of weeks now. So far, it’s been a fairly pleasant setting. It started with the story of a landowner who insisted on paying all the workers the same generous wage, whether they worked all day in the harvest or just for the last hour. Easily one of the clearest parables of grace. But today the story of the vineyard takes a sharp turn. Far from God’s ideal garden, it is now a dangerous place run by wicked tenants.
Jesus isn’t holding anything back, and the characters are thinly veiled. The vineyard owner is obviously God. And the vineyard itself is a reference from the fifth chapter of Isaiah. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.” So the vineyard is Israel, God’s people. And the tenants who leased the land are the religious authorities, the ones who were to take care of Israel. They seem to making a violent, greedy mess of things, and Jesus is pointing right to them.
The owner sends slaves to collect the harvest – these represent the prophets who were often killed for their truth-telling. And then, the owner sends his son, obviously Jesus. Given Jesus’ penchant for preaching against the religious leadership and claiming his own authority, he knew that his fate would be the same as that of the prophets before him. And he used that knowledge for one of the best set-ups in the New Testament.
He asked the chief priests and the Pharisees, who were listening to this parable, what they thought the landowner would do after they killed his son. Pronouncing their own judgment, they answered, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” They found themselves caught off guard, convicted by an authority vastly different than theirs. And so they would conspire how to trap him later.
But let’s spend a moment on the sin that Jesus is calling out here, because it’s a sin we easily fall into as well. First, the leaders forgot that they were only stewards of the vineyard for a time. It was not theirs to own but God’s, on loan as a gift. Then, they assumed that their authority or success or winning or salvation could be measured by the world’s terms, the ones that reward power, wealth, even violence. And they were looking for a messiah to come in with all kinds of top-down, supernatural military authority to place Israel on top of the world. They were not at all prepared for Jesus. They were not looking for what Robert Capon calls, “some ineffective messianic pretender whose idea of saving action is aggravating God’s representatives into exterminating him.” Intoxicated with the ways of the world, their sin was unbelief in God’s very different ways.
The story of the wicked tenants seems especially poignant these days. A week ago, Las Vegas was another reminder that this world runs all too often on extreme violence and power lorded over others. This world, this vineyard of God, is not as it ought to be, at least not yet. There’s so much working against that vision. Jesus came to show us a different way for our souls, because if you fight against such forces with more of the same, you only end up with more death and destruction. That is why he never brought an army to his rescue. That is why he went silently to the cross, to absorb those forces into himself and to conquer the forces of sin and death once and for all. Our salvation is freely given to us out of his sacrifice and resurrection. We cannot earn our salvation by strength or violence or even our good works. It was accomplished for us by a God whose love refused to fight the same earthly fight we keep getting caught up in.
There was a man who saw this clearly, a saint we honor today. Francis of Assisi from the thirteenth century is perhaps the most loved saints in Christian history. We honor him by blessing animals and celebrating the beauty of creation, since he was such a devout lover of God’s vineyard. He’s the one that preached to birds and calmed a wolf into living harmoniously with nearby villagers. Such amazing stories, however, are only a small part of his amazing witness. Moved by poverty and suffering around him, he left his life of comfort and ease to follow Christ.
In a vision at the church in San Damiano, Christ told Francis to go rebuild the church. At first, Francis interpreted the message literally, and did all he could to rebuild the physical structure. He gradually came to understand that the spirit’s request of him to rebuild the church was, in fact, a larger request for him to rebuild God’s church in the world. He decided to begin this enormous task with something smaller, the rebuilding of his own heart. He got to work on examining his life. He left no stone unturned, asking the question of what it means to follow Christ in each and every part of his life. He asked how he was to love others. This path led him to a new life he could not have predicted or foreseen in his old life. He founded a religious order, fought for the poor and the marginalized, and loved all of God’s creation, especially the most vulnerable.
Francis was someone who could see what God’s vineyard ought to be, healed from all that the wicked tenants got caught up in. Healed from all that we get caught up in. He made the world more beautiful by following the way of Jesus wherever he went. He imitated Christ. He extended mercy. He rejoiced in his salvation through grace. And wherever he went, he made his corner of the world a bit more green, and the harvest of God more fruitful.
That’s our calling as well. Jesus’ storytelling is meant to wake us up out of any sense of despair or futility and to rekindle our hope. I think my early dream of marrying a winemaker and moving to Napa was an attempt to bypass a more complicated world. But now I see that we are already living in the vineyard. This world is still God’s beautiful world on loan to us. We can be gracious tenants. We have been shown a different way to live, not out of might but out of mercy. Following the example of St. Francis, we can reflect that different way in caring for our corner of the vineyard and its inhabitants, seeing the world a bit more as it ought to be. I think that would make the landowner very glad indeed.