Fruitful vineyards

5 October 2014
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22A (RCL)
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

In Track 2 of the the Revised Common Lectionary, the Old Testament reading assigned is Isaiah 5:1-7. Although we are using Track 1, I think Isaiah 5 is essential background for the parable Matthew tells in this passage. The Wisdom myth of Second Temple Judaism told the story of how God had sent the prophets again and again to the people to correct the people’s way of life, and how the people had killed the prophets and ignored their message, until at last, Wisdom departed the Temple and it was destroyed the first time. Matthew takes this myth and revises it to show that the vineyard will be given over to a new people who will bring forth justice. The Isaiah 5 passage is made to do its work again, equating God’s removal of the wall from the vineyard with the second destruction of Jerusalem. This time, we have the added element of the vineyard being given to new tenants, that is, to the new Christian community.

Jewish identity was under contest in the period after the destruction of the Temple, and Matthew and other Christians were setting themselves up as the authentic inheritors of that identity. I find such supercessionism a bit disturbing, because it assumes that God can go back on God’s promises. Paul struggles with that same concept of a new community replacing the community of God’s promises. He does not allow that the first promises are void, but that God will honor them, through the work of the new community. Paul sees that the first community misunderstood the purpose of the laws given. The law was to create a just community, and instead, that community, weakened by the flesh, used the law to draw distinction between inside and out.

In this passage from Philippians, Paul states that if anyone had the right to boast of being on the inside on the basis of the law, he did. However, he counts all this as loss and rubbish (the word in Greek is rather more colorful than “rubbish” — it means literally “what is cast from the dog”) in comparison to knowing Christ and the community established in Christ.

The Ten Commandments are often used in our present political climate as a kind of litmus test. Town councils try to pas legislation making it ok to display the commandments at town halls or in council chambers. The states’ supreme courts then strike down such legislation, citing the separation of Church and State. The idea seems to be that you’re not a good American and member of our town if you don’t hold these commandments, if you don’t agree that this is a Christian nation.

This seems to me to be exactly the use of the law to which Paul objected. It becomes a shibboleth, an ideological litmus test. We make it a way of drawing distinctions “in the flesh.” What God intended when God planted the vineyard of his people was a harvest of the grapes of justice, and God found instead injustice. The tenants of the vineyard were supposed to be tending it for justice, but they wanted to keep the produce for themselves (which isn’t the way justice works, after all). We see the law from the point of view of scarcity: there isn’t enough of what it protects to go around, so we have to hoard it to ourselves (the law protects private property, profit and the like). God wants tenants who well see the vineyard from the point of view of abundance, as an open sum game: the more justice there is, the more there is to give away. We need to be tending the vineyard so that God may pour the abundance of blessing on us all.

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