Transformation in the Vineyard

Lessons for Proper 22, Year A: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

What Jesus says in today’s Gospel parable has both a very important historical meaning as well as a crucial actual meaning. For us to understand its present significance, though, we first need to grasp the historical context of Jesus teaching.

Readers in late first-century Palestine or Syria would have been familiar with the economic system presupposed in the parable of the vineyard. Absentee landowners let out their farms and vineyards to sharecroppers who worked the land in exchange for a fee or a percentage. The bulk of the profits, however, belonged to the land owner, who at the appropriate time would send his representative or agent to collect what was owed. The tenant farmers’ plan to inherit the vineyard was foolish, simple-minded, a desperate folly, as long as the owner stayed alive.

Besides these economic realities readers would have been familiar with the portrayal of Israel as a vineyard. Isaiah prophesied about Israel and Juday: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…” and lest there be any doubt, “…the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.” But despite all the efforts that God expended on the vineyard, “it yielded wild grapes.”

So, with the parable of the vineyard, Jesus describes God’s relations with the people of Israel and Judah. The parable relates some clear allegorical features: the tenant farmers are Israel’s leaders; the owner is God; the slaves or messengers are the prophets; and the son is Jesus. And the vineyard (as we mentioned) is Israel – but the vineyard is ultimately, as we read it through the Christian lens, all of God’s people – perhaps all of creation. And we are – not just the leaders (although we will have our own account to bear) but all of us – we are meant to be the farmers, the tenants who do the work and cultivate the vineyard.

“When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…the earth was formless and void…and then God spoke and it was…and God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God made everything “good.” And God entrusted that goodness….that “vineyard” of creation to humanity, to have dominion over, to cultivate and care for.

Through Abraham and Moses and David, God gave the house of Israel and Judah a great stewardship, making them caretakers of the divine covenant – caretakers of the vineyard that God had called to be his own. And in Jesus, care of the covenant was entrusted to the Apostles and, through them, to the Church. Care of the vineyard has been entrusted to us

But what happened? God expected the vineyard to yield “grapes,” but instead it yielded “wild grapes,” as Isaiah describes it. Grapes that would produce good wine but instead there were wild grapes that produced sour wine, worthless. God sent his servants to remind the tenants to collect what was the owner’s own possession…to remind the tenants what was expected of them… remind them to produce good fruit from all God’s wonderful gifts. God even sent his own son. But they ridiculed those servant and they despised the son. They beat them and they killed the messengers. And they didn’t respect the son but rather seized him and killed him. When Jesus said those words, he was perhaps looking forward to that moment a fortnight hence. “Come, let us kill him” reverberated throughout Pontius Pilate’s Courtyard as they screeched, “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” (Mt 27:22-23).

What was going on with the tenants? Have you ever seen the Disney Pixar film, Finding Nemo. There is scene in the movie when Marlin and Dory find themselves at a marina in Sydney Harbor with Nigel the Pelican. This group of seagulls appears and nearly try to eat Marlin and Dory but Nigel saves them. The seagulls are what interest me here as they are portrayed as mindless eating machines who caw endlessly, “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine….” Well, that’s a little what the tenants farmers were like. They wanted it for themselves and were willing to contravene the covenant, beat God’s messengers, and kill God’s son in order to get it. Out of greed and pride they wanted to do with the vineyard as they will, and so they prevent God from realizing the divine dream for the people God has made. Yep, it’s the ancient story of sin: They weren’t content being what they were created to be. They wanted to be gods themselves.

But Jesus is clear, “the kingdom of God will be…given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Fruit? What does it mean to produce fruit? There are many descriptions of bearing fruit in our sacred narrative. There are parables and Jesus direct teaching – Matthew 25, presented on our murals here, describes the six portrayals.

Our first lesson today gives us the Ten Dibarim – the so-called “commandments” that describe life in covenant with God and the community. These are, perhaps, the most classic way of seeing what it means to bears fruit. These ten Dibarim are, indeed, not commandments at all; but, rather, are words of truth, descriptive of what it means to be in covenant with God. To use the language of Jesus’ parable, they are what it looks like to bear fruit.

On the one hand, Israel’s first duty was to be faithful to the Lord God. This is clearly spelled out in the first word…

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.”

Israel owes God abodah, or worship because God is their source. God is source of covenant as God gave them a his name, a name above every name. God is the source of goodness and creation so the Israelites are to honor creation’s rest or fulfillment. And God is the source of our image-hood so we are to honor that image passed down from our mothers and our fathers.

On the other hand, Israel also has an equal duty to living the covenant in community. Social behavior is thus vital. The final six words address Israel’s life in community. Indeed, the covenant at Sinai revealed an intrinsic connection between the nature of the Lord God and the demands of justice and mercy. How Israel treated each other would be a sign and manifestation of how seriously and wholeheartedly they lived the covenant in worship of the Lord.

One of my favorite expositions of fruit-bearing is from Micah 6:8, which reads:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micha 6:8).

But this is not what God found among the tenants. “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7b).

Justice is concerned with doing what is right both personally and socially. Justice demands a prophetic spirituality that will cause us to hunger and thirst for personal, social, cultural, and institutional transformation. Prophetic spirituality or justice demands that things change.

Mercy means being big-hearted, tenderhearted, generous, giving, and forgiving. Mercy is getting and giving not what we deserve but what we need. Mercy is probably best illustrated in that parable of Jesus where the good Samaritan stopped on the side of the road to Jericho to help a man who had fallen among thieves. Jesus said of him, “He showed mercy.”

Walking humbly with God demonstrates that our God is more than a philosophical construct. God is a living reality, an eternal vow, who invites us to worship and walk in relationship.

Jesus was not the first to interpret and apply the ten dibarim in the way he did at the sermon on the mount, but hear what he said:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement…”

In other words, it’s not just about the killing of another but the way in which we treat one another  in our interpersonal relationships and the way in which we allow social and cultural norms which kill or lead to death to thrive.  

It’s about greed caused by covetness. Its about discrimination formed from false witness. It’s about the destruction of ecosystems and cultural heritage caused by theft.

The Ten dibarim are not merely a checklist of things done or not done. No, they are instead words that invite us to utter transformation before God and in community. They are words that invite us to righteousness, to bear fruit.

God’s desire for the church is for us to be so changed that we become a burning bush that is aflame with the glory of God. God’s desire for each one of us is to be so changed that we become a river of living water out of which life and joy floods to others. God’s desire for the church and for us individually is to be so changed that we become a people who are passionate about justice and mercy and who discover how to walk humbly with God.

Incredible good news revealed in Jesus Christ is that this transformation is a possibility for all and for each who will receive it.

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