Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Law, a Prophet, and a Vineyard

October 4, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Exodus 20:1-20; Matthew 21:33-46[1]

The Israelites, set free from slavery in Egypt, begin to establish a new culture. In the wilderness they discover their identity as God’s people.  Having set the people free, God gives them the means to remain free.  The law, beginning with the Ten Commandments, sets this people apart as the people of God – the Lord God who brought them out of slavery to freedom.  And the people of God worship and honor God by obeying God’s laws.

The law is not meant to be a punishment, a burden, or an obstacle to freedom.  True freedom requires responsibility.  Freedom without responsibility, without limits, is the mob rule, freedom for the strong and the powerful, but slavery for the weak and defenseless.

In order to be a free people, we must be at peace with one another, able to trust one another, responsible for the well-being of one another.  And God, by giving the commandments, by setting the boundaries, has provided the means for the people to remain free.  If the people worship God, resist temptation, and take responsibility for one another, they will prosper and remain a free people.  The law would shape the life and identity of the people of God, and be a force that would preserve it against every threat. Through the giving of the commandments God fulfills a promise made earlier in Exodus: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”[1]

God is in a relationship with the people, not unlike the relationship parents have with children. God sets the rules, not so that we can’t have any fun, or have to check off a list of good behavior in order for God to love us. Rather, God show us love in giving the law as the means to have a good and happy relationship with one another and with God. In this sense obedience becomes a loving, grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do. God has given us the commandments to help us to be good people, good neighbors, good citizens even. Without the rules, all of our relationships – with our neighbors, with God, even with our selves – are endangered.

Long before this list of rules, God gave us some work to do. What was the first job that God gave human beings? God made us the gardeners in Eden, and after that bad business about disobedience, we became farmers. Most people throughout history have been farmers or have belonged to agrarian societies. So, it was natural that when Jesus came along, he used agrarian imagery such as the vineyard in our story to talk about the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught people about God’s desires for us using stories that connected with the experiences of the people, so in this story Jesus puts us in a vineyard.

If you work in the vineyard, you are expected to do your job, care for the growth of the vines, and provide the owner with the harvest. You’re also expected to remember that it’s not your vineyard. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, seeing all that the wicked tenants have done, what will the owner do to those tenants?

In Matthew’s story, the answer they gave to Jesus was, “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” (v. 41). Who is Jesus talking to? There is the crowd, of course, and the disciples, but they seem to be mostly spectators. It is the chief priests and scribes who answer Jesus’ question. And his response turns the tables on them.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?[2]

“Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (vs. 42-43). Matthew ends this passage by telling us that “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (v. 45).

The parable is a test of leadership. Whose vineyard is it? God planted the vineyard. God is the owner. As the people most responsible for leading the Jewish people at that time, the chief priests are the tenants. The grapes, by the way, are the people to be tended and harvested for the Kingdom of God. We expect good tenants to pay the rent, to do the work that is expected, and to turn over the harvest to the owner. But these are wicked tenants. As one commentary on Matthew’s Gospel tells us, the wicked tenants are those who (1) do not want to give fruit to the owner (or perhaps are unwilling to produce the proper fruit); (2) reject the owner’s authority; and (3) work for themselves.[3]

By rejecting the authority of the messengers, the tenants reject the authority of the owner as well. The tenants see these messengers as a threat to their own prosperity. They have it pretty good in the vineyard, and they’ve worked hard. They expect to keep the profit for themselves. I mean, who needs the owner, right? We’ll just kill his son, the heir, and then the vineyard will be ours! The owner, he’s never around. Who needs him?

The fruit of the vineyard is the grapes, and in this story, we might see ourselves as the grapes meant to be harvested. The wicked tenants want to keep the harvest for themselves. In other words, they want to keep the people, God’s people, for their own purposes. Those in authority want to exploit us. They have taken the first commandment and put themselves in the place of God. How do you think that turned out?

The warning that Jesus gives to the chief priests is that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (v. 43). At the time that Matthew wrote his Gospel, war had swept through Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. The priests of the Temple, with all their power and authority, essentially disappeared from history. Those who had tended the vines and had the responsibility of leading the people were gone.

Leadership of God’s people moved from the Temple in Jerusalem to synagogues and churches. The high priests and Pharisees were replaced by rabbis and ministers. There are new tenants in the vineyard, new caretakers, and we hope that they produce the fruits of the kingdom.

If we pull this analogy up to the current time, those we have put in power are not always the best caretakers. There are those who make a big deal of noise about laws and rules like the Ten Commandments, but only as they apply to people other than themselves. There are those who put on a big show of working for the owner of the vineyard while intending to keep the harvest for themselves. There are those who have forgotten, if they ever really knew, that we are all in relationship with each other, and the well-being of each of us matters for the well-being of all of us.

Perhaps the grapes should reclaim the vineyard. The grapes know how important it is to stick together, to hold each other up, to be thankful for the sun and the rain. I think it is important, no matter who the tenants are, for the grapes to remember who the vineyard belongs to. Whether you fancy yourself a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay, or a Riesling, we’re all just grapes, and we all need the vine.

The vine is what connects us all. Jesus said, “I am the vine.”[4] Christ is the vine that holds together the grapes; whether we are Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, or Congregational, we are united as the Church of Jesus Christ. Other vines grow with us, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and many others; and they also need responsible care from the tenants.

We must recognize that there are rules that must be kept, laws that hold the authority of commandments, which allow us to live in peace with one another. We must also recognize the purpose of the laws, which is to set us free from slavery, to give us the freedom to live in respectful relationship with one another, with our planet, and in good relationship with God.

There are special celebrations happening around this time of year in many religions. For Protestant churches such as ours, this is World Communion Sunday. On this day Christians around the world will celebrate the Last Supper of Jesus, symbolically seeking unity with one another. Now, more than ever, it is time to seek peace with one another, peace with the earth, and peace with our Creator. May God’s vineyard bear much fruit for the Kingdom. Amen.

[1] Exodus 6:7.

[2] Psalm 118:22.

[3] Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith, pp. 298-299.

[4] John 15:5.

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