Proper 22A: Isa. 5:1-7; Matt. 21:33-46 St. Paul’s, Smithfield, 10/8/2017
Jim Melnyk: “A Tale of Two Vineyards”
Today we’ve heard two parables that mention vineyards; one from the book of Isaiah, which addresses problems with the vineyard itself; and the other from Matthew’s gospel, which actually addresses the tenants of a particular vineyard. Although vineyards are in both parables, the stories are about two different topics. Perhaps we should start by saying what the parables are not about – because both have been misused throughout the history of the Christian faith.
Neither parable is about the Promise being taken away from God’s People, Israel, and given to someone else. Neither parable is about God forsaking God’s people. Both parables have elements of judgment – yet both parables have hints of God’s grace – hints of God’s favor – hints of God’s love for us – as well.
In Isaiah’s parable we know the vineyard is Israel, God’s beloved people, and we know from the rest of the story that even after exile there will be a return. In Matthew’s parable, despite the harsh reality of the cross which looms on the horizon, the self-giving love of Jesus is God’s promise that will bring new life.
Isaiah’s parable is pre-exilic in nature. That is, it’s being told to God’s people who are still living in Jerusalem – who have not yet experienced the exile. The Northern Kingdom has fallen to Assyria, but Judah – with Jerusalem at its heart – is still holding off the challenges of Babylon. Israel is God’s vineyard – and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting – those whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt into a new land so long ago. But the leadership of Israel – the monarchy and those attached to the royal court – have come under God’s judgment for acting unjustly. “The types of injustice noted by Isaiah include a failure to defend the weak (1:23), an accumulation of wealth for themselves (1:29), the suppression of the poor (3:14-15), and the deprivation of rights of the innocent (5:23). God expects Judah to use their privilege to stand for the weak and vulnerable, but they instead use it for injustice” (Min-Ah Cho, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 10/8/2017).
God, according to the Prophet, has looked at the powerful in Judah expecting justice, and has seen bloodshed. God has looked at them expecting righteousness, but has heard the cry of the poor and the dispossessed instead. Exile will be the outcome for a nation that has struggled to be faithful to their calling as God’s people. Yet the promise remains.
Centuries later Jesus is seeing trends in Jerusalem that remind him of Isaiah’s day. In Matthew’s parable the vineyard is still Israel. But this story isn’t about Israel as a whole, or about Judaism versus Christianity. In fact when Jesus tells the parable for the first time there is no such thing as Christianity. Even when Matthew puts the story to paper decades later, the early stirrings of Church are still understood by most as a division within Judaism.
This story in Matthew is actually about those who have been raised up by God to lead the people – those raised up to be the ones who tend the vineyard that is Israel. Or, to mix our metaphors a bit with another traditional image used time and again by the prophets – they are the shepherds charged with caring for Israel, their flock. Either way, too many of the leaders had failed at their calling, causing God’s people to struggle with what it means to be faithful to God.
Jesus’ story and his challenging question about the fate of the wicked tenants is, like Isaiah’s parable centuries before, a call to conversion. “Both Isaiah and Matthew suggest that the way to conversion is to focus on the neighbor, to be able to see God as the face of the homeless, as the [face of the] poor, as the [face of the] abused [and broken, and the chronically ill – as the face of those experiencing so many other harsh realities of life].
For [those of us who know what it means to be privileged in so many ways], this means becoming more aware of a responsibility to the weak and vulnerable, rejecting the temptation to insulate [ourselves from a world in need]” (ibid). In other words, both parables remind us of God’s commitment to us; and they remind us to live as God calls us to live: living lives in faithful relationship with each other, with the stranger among us, and in faithful relationship with the God who creates us and who gives us life.
Central to Israel’s understanding of her relationship with God is the creedal statement from the Book of Deuteronomy known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:4-7).
Central to Israel’s understanding of her interpersonal relationships with neighbor and foreigner alike is a statement from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord…. When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:18, 33-34).
It was therefore not a great stretch for Jesus to point to the passages from both Deuteronomy and Leviticus in response when asked which command from Torah was the greatest. The two, love for God and love for our neighbor, held in tandem which each other, define the whole of our relational existence. What’s more, as we come to understand more clearly the source of those two great commandments, we also come to know, understand, and reflect God’s great love for each of us as God’s own pleasant planting in the vineyard.
And so it is no wonder we chose a rather simple way of saying these great truths as our stewardship theme this year. “Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Change the World.” You see, our theme is about conversion as well. Our theme is about how we choose to live out our lives of faith in our homes, in our parish, in our communities, and in this world. How each of us chooses to live our lives has an effect on this world. And as people of faith we are called to join with God not only in our own personal transformations into the likeness of Christ, but we are called to join with God to help bring about the transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.
Transformation is a challenge – and we won’t get there in the blink of an eye. But as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…. I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12, 14).
Whatever our choices we make in this life, we must be aware that both parables we heard read today apply not just to the leadership of Israel during the lifetimes of Isaiah and Jesus, but they apply to us as well: the choices on our part to yield wild grapes or yield good grapes, the choices to live out our lives, or support choices by others, which yield bloodshed and a cry; or choices and ways of living which yield justice and righteousness for even the least among us. The choice to be unfaithful tenants of what has been entrusted to us by God, or faithful tenants who work to see the vineyard – see the kingdom – thrive. And after the madness in Las Vegas this past week it’s obvious we have choices to make as a nation, and still have a long way to go.
What will we do with the incredible gift of grace we have received from God? Because how we choose to love God – or not; and how we choose to love our neighbor – or not; will indeed, one way or the other, change the world.