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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before October 5, 2014


Matthew 21:33-46

33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “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.” 42Jesus 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’? 43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

What I am Learning:

Jesus continues his public debate with the religious leaders of his day. He was in front of the crowds in the temple teaching when the scribes, Pharisees and the Chief Priests came to confront him in a public debate. He tells this parable as a part of that debate.

The imagery here is about Israel as a vineyard. This vineyard imagery is used in many places in the Hebrew Scriptures. It refers to the Israel as a people who were to produce fruit and wine that would teach the whole human race how to live with each other. In the Psalms the ancient poets said that God had taken a vine out of Egypt and planted it in Palestine. In Isaiah 5, God laments that God had planted grapes, but got wild grapes instead. Instead of unity there was competition. Instead of sharing there was theft. Instead of peace there was violence. Instead of joy there was anger.

Jesus picks up this imagery and forms it for his purposes in front of the crowd. His point is simple: the religious leaders have failed the vineyard, have failed God’s people, and have failed to be faithful to God. They have failed to produce fruit – to be a blessing to all the families of the world.

These religious leaders were in a truly difficult spot. The Chief Priest was chosen by the Roman governor and his robes held in the governor’s palace. While they could continue the ancient practices of their religion they were held accountable when the people’s longing for freedom from the Romans became too public.

These religious leaders were under heavy pressure to keep radical movements like Jesus’ under wraps. That is why they are trying to ruin Jesus’ reputation in public.

But in turn he calls them out as collaborators, as part of the control system of the Romans.

To the crowd this must have seemed amazing. The Chief Priests, Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees all claimed a kind of privilege as the premier religious authorities in their day. Jesus instead calls them out for not being faithful leaders who muted the message of liberation that was and is the heart of the Jewish faith.

That was then. What about now?

It is all too clear that many Christian leaders today mute the Gospel message because it will lose them followers and pledges. Stray too far from the conventional wisdom, challenge too sharply what the larger culture is doing and there will be nasty consequences for the pastor and the budget.

Now I want to be clear that I am not saying that preachers should tell people who to vote for. Nor am I saying that pastors should propose answers to every public issue and ask for everyone to agree. I am saying that we the church, if we are to be the church, are called to take on the economic, racial and social issues of the day because that is what Jesus did.

In Anacortes, during the build up to the Iraq war, only 2 congregations held conversation about it. Most ignored the whole thing. Churches fail to mention many important issues. Our silence gives a kind of consent to the way things are that breeds hopelessness. We assume that the faithful church is the church that gives the market what it wants.

Pastors often fail to bring up such issues because we, like the Chief Priests, have a certain degree of privilege and we want to maintain that privilege.

To the degree that this privilege keeps us from raising difficult questions, Jesus is challenging pastors along with the Chief Priests.

Pastors are not the only part of the church that claim Christian privilege. I hear many Christians claim that because they are Christian, baptized or faithful participants in the church that God loves them more. Instead of seeing discipleship as a call to join God in neighbor love some think that discipleship is about our superiority over our neighbor.

To the degree that this privilege keeps us from loving our neighbor, Jesus is challenging Christians along with the Chief Priests.

Any claim to privilege is grounded and founded on our belief that we are not loved as we are – that we have to be better than someone else to have worth. We assume that our worth is based on where we are in a pecking order.

This is a lie.

Human beings, as a part of God’s good, very good creation, are beloved as we are. We are affirmed in our specific life. Because we are so loved, we don’t need to claim privilege over others, and can repent of it when we do.

In the story the question is asked, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants?”

The parable is intended to challenge the privilege of the religious leaders by telling the story of Jesus in Matthew – with one omission. In the Gospel of Matthew what the owner of the vineyard does is not kill the tenants, but instead raises Jesus from the dead. Jesus is raised from the dead as a sign of God’s tenacious love for everyone: even we who mistakenly trade God’s love for meager privilege.