Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on October 2, 2005
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Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
October 2, 2005
We are invited into this strange parable of Jesus' today. This parable of the wicked tenants always makes me squirm in my seat a little bit when I hear it. The standard interpretation of what Jesus was trying to say is not a theological truth that I'd be quick to sign onto.
The image of the vineyard is a standard Old Testament image for Israel. For an example of this, you can look at the verses from the prophet Isaiah that make the Old Testament lesson in "track 2" in the bulletin insert. While we are not following this track, a quick glance at it will show God singing about his beloved vineyard, Israel.
So in this parable, we have God as the landowner, Israel as the vineyard, the tenants of the vineyard are those whose task it is to tend to God's Israel - namely the priests and scribes and Pharisees. The messengers sent from the landowner are the prophets, and finally the son whom the tenants murder is Jesus Christ himself.
Without nuance, this way of reading the parable lends itself to propagating the worst kind of anti-Semitism. Because of Jewish crimes against his prophets and against his son, God has given the kingdom to others. This is a reading of this parable that we cannot assent to.
So how shall we read this parable? I must admit, I don't think there can be ONE right reading here. I think instead of making complicated truths simple and evident, Jesus is using this story to muddy the waters and disturb those who think they have the answers all sown up. Whatever answer we come up with for how to read this parable must be provisional. Christ is here muddying the waters so we continue to scratch our heads and ponder the mystery of his kingdom rather than opening to us an evident truth.
The Scribes and Pharisees and chief priests realized Jesus was telling this story about them. This is not a story about every Israelite. Glance at that Isaiah passage when you get a chance. Israel is the vines, the vineyard-the plants that yield grapes-the Pharisees and priests are those tenants who are tending the vines so that they bear fruit. This is a story against the religious leadership, and not a sweeping indictment of an entire people.
The chief priests and Pharisees probably thought they were leading God's people pretty well. They're tending the vineyard, working for fruit in the way God taught them through Moses in the Torah. But Jesus says to them, "No. You haven't been tending the vineyard well. God has sent messengers and prophets telling you to change the way you do things-and you haven't paid attention. You have been withholding the produce of a vineyard that isn't yours, and you're going to pay for what you've done."
I can only guess at the Pharisees' and priests' response to this. Perhaps something like, "Who the heck is this roadside preaching peasant to dare to tell us that not only are we not doing our job correctly as caretakers of God's vineyard but that we have been murderously opposing God's will." So they were angry, and scandalized, and wanted to arrest him-and only didn't arrest him because he was surrounded by a crowd who though of Jesus as a prophet. This is the kind of story that helped get Jesus killed: to call the religious authorities of his day criminal and predict God's vengeance against them.
By what authority can he say these things? This is the critical question. To the Pharisees and Chief priests, Jesus had no authority over them. How dare he maledict their leadership? How dare he claim that he knows so much more about God than they that he has the authority to reveal God's will. Jesus to them was an obnoxious upstart who didn't know his place and eventually he would pay the price for his insolence and rabble rousing.
But we Christians call Jesus "Lord." We say he has all authority in heaven and on earth and under the earth. We must listen to his disturbing parable and let it confuse us and make us question our place in his allegory. I must confess as a member of religious leadership in the Church, this parable makes me uneasy. I cannot be so complacent as to say that this parable found its mark in the religious authorities of Jesus' day and now has no relevance except to explain to us why Christians are said to now be part of God's vineyard. No, this parable is still a part of God's living and active word and it ought to concern us.
If the priests and Pharisees of Jesus' day thought that they were doing God's will even while Jesus was telling them plainly that they were not-how are we to know whether we are rejecting God's prophetic word to us? There is a strong word of judgment in this passage. I am not comforted.
But I believe God stirs us up with his words not to leave us in a state of unrest and uncertainty, he is not holding a sword over my head in order to pronounce my sentence-rather he stirs us with his words so that we can rethink and re-examine those things that have become perhaps too settled. I am not allowed to complacently rest thinking I am doing God's will-rather, I must examine my place in the vineyard.
Further, I believe that we have a gracious God. In this parable we see an aspect of God that may make us uncomfortable, that God who as the Pharisees put it to Jesus "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." However, we know that this is NOT in fact what God did to those wicked tenants. After the Son was put to death, instead of wreaking a terrible revenge, God raised his son back to life and offered salvation to all through him, including the most wicked of wicked tenants-men like St. Paul who killed believers before he had his transformation in Christ. Paul, who would have every reason to quake in his boots at the parable speaks a beautiful word of grace in his letter to the Philippians today-a simple statement of how, I think we ought to view our place in the vineyard. We do not know the will of God exactly. We are not sure where we fit into this allegory of judgment, but we strive to know Christ. We are a people who strive to know Christ-it is my prayer for myself and for you that we can make Paul's words are own:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 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. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: 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.
©2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York