The Rev. Dr. William A. Heisley
Lessons: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
I don’t know what the man who owned the vineyard expected. After all, when you have a valuable property, you don’t just turn your back on it. You don’t just go away and expect everything to be OK. The landowner had invested lots of time and money in the vineyard. He bought the land and built a fence – had to be out of stone; that’s all they had – he bought the land and had an elaborate stone fence built and paid workers to dig a wine press, paid lots of money to get the really dirty work done. He paid and paid and paid and then he thought, “Well my work here is done. I’ve put good people in place and I can go to my lake house now. My investments are secure.”
But he was wrong. There was no security. Instead there was intrigue and insubordination and greed. There was a vineyard full of human passions and conniving and desires. The tenants, of course, thought that the profits, the wine they made that year, should be theirs. After all, they did all the hard work. Their feet were the purple ones, not the landowner’s His feet were probably propped up on the side of his fishing boat in some far off vacation locale.
So the tenant farmers killed the landowner’s collectors, the slaves he sent. Killed his private property and cost him a fortune in human flesh, human life. Again and again they murdered, because this vineyard, this beautiful garden in the midst of a thirsty land, was a place that they had created and tended and it was theirs.
The landowner sent his handsome young son. Lots of charisma. Lots of tact. Yet a certain strength in the way that he handled things. But the tenants were so convinced that the property was theirs, the wine was theirs, the money they would make from selling the new vintage was theirs, that they thought nothing of killing the son. He was in the way. Charisma or not. He was in the way of their lust for life. So they killed him like a sacrificial goat at the temple.
What could the landowner do? He put his feet back in the boat, went to shore, rode his mighty steed to the vineyard along with rank upon rank of slaves and led the slaughter, the retribution, the murder of the tenants. And the landowner was on the right side of the law. The law permitted him to own slaves and to deal justice out to them, as he saw fit. The law permitted him to set things right. Because the law condemned the tenants. They were wrong. Utterly wrong and therefore they deserved death.
I guess the only good news here is that the landowner had the permission to do what needed to be done, and had the power to do it. But that sure doesn’t sound like good news for the tenants. Just because of their greed, a head for manipulating their environment, they lost everything. Just because they firmly controlled matters at hand, they were annihilated. Just because they did what most people with the chance would do, they were wiped from the face of the earth. No good news for tenants.
Lucky for us, St. Paul rushes in to help with the story. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.” I guess it wasn’t good news for the tenants, but in the end Paul shows us that they are still loved. It wasn’t good news that death walked boldly in the world, carried a vinedresser’s knife. But justice had to be done.
St. Paul knew the story, knew the type of people that Jesus was talking about, knew a lot about the human condition. But most of all he knew about Jesus. He knew that the tenants were paying attention to all the wrong things. That the landowner had to do something to fix things.
I wrote an article this week in our online publication, This Month at Holy Trinity, in which I talked about how so much of life feels like it’s imploding these days. Advances in equality are challenged by the evils perpetrated in Ferguson. Ebola, a disease that belongs “over there,” shows that it will make itself at home wherever it pleases, and always at home in death. Wall Street, shaking at its roots as it seeks to continue its recovery from the debacle of 2008 and the years leading up to it. Theological education called into question across the face of the Protestant Church as battered academics finally stand up for the quality of Christian education that the Church longs for.
Yesterday our Jewish sisters and brothers observed Yom Kippur, the holiest day on their calendar. It is not a day of celebration, but rather a day of begging for forgiveness, of coming to grips with the realities of our human frailties. And today we began our liturgy with a lesser,more often prayed Confession of Forgiveness, atoning in our own Christian way, asking for the same Yom Kippur forgiveness that has lately filled our neighborhood. When we hear St. Paul’s voice saying “I regard everything as loss,” we can more clearly understand these things.
Paul’s voice haunts me. “I regard everything as loss,” is too true these days. It feels like the law is condemning us to a sort of living that we don’t want to do. But hold on. Paul goes further: ”Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Maybe all of the rifts breaking open in our culture and in our institutions don’t matter as much as we sometimes feel that they do. Maybe they can’t separate us from the essence of the good life, from the power of justice, from the grace offered to us – as tenants of the earth. Maybe it’s about gospel. The law shows us how we’ve done our best to make the vineyard ours, the vineyard to which we have utterly no claim. The law points out to us how much we have built walls, expensive stone walls, between God’s love and our lives.
But the gospel, the good news is that the more we strive to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,” the more we agree to let the landowner have his crop and pour out his wine, the more we worship the sacrificial charisma of the Son who comes in a last ditch effort to change us, the more we live.
It’s not about implosions in our country and in our lives. It’s about the garden paths that God in Christ walks with us. It’s about tending his vineyard because he tends to us, he cares for us. It’s about the fact that he is grace – all grace, to us, and for us. Forgiven, renewed, and planted to produce life. Amen.