Whose vineyard?

8 October 2017
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22A (RCL)
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Urrrf. This ‘parable’ clearly promotes a supercessionist understanding of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. For Israel’s failure to render the fruit of the vineyard to God, God will give the vineyard to other tenants. The vineyard, of course, refers to Isaiah 5:1-7, and the fruit of the vineyard is to be justice and peace. The stream of servants who come to ask for the fruit lines up with the prophets in the Wisdom myth. Israel persecuted the prophets (cf. the Jerusalem, Jerusalem saying in Matthew’s Gospel).

In Isaiah 5, God tears down the hedge around Jerusalem and leaves it to the beasts of the field — seemingly a reference to the first destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew (and Mark before him) writing from the perspective of after the second destruction of Jerusalem makes the shift from a simple abandonment of Jerusalem to an understanding that new tenants (the Christians) will render the fruit of the vineyard to God, the landowner.

Matthew adds the sending of the landowner’s son, just in case we miss the point of the story. Since Jerusalem killed Jesus, therefore God is justified in giving the vineyard to the Christians.

I find it hard to redeem this story. The only hope is to say that we are now the tenants in the vineyard, and so we had better pay attention to those whom God is sending to us, to demand the fruit of the vineyard, and to focus on what that fruit should be. The prophets make us uncomfortable by reminding us that those things we think are ours by right really belong to God, and that our hoarding of those things might warrant our loss of them. If we think justice belongs only to us, we might need to be prepared to lose it, and if the people demanding it make us uncomfortable, we would do well to pay attention to them.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about his claim to God’s favor, which he now regards as ‘rubbish’ (the polite NRSV translation of a word that clearly means ‘dog shit’). None of those claims amounts to anything, because God has given God’s favor to all. Paul is on his way to his own martyrdom as he writes this letter, and yet it is his most joyful letter. All the things that he once claimed as his own, he now rejects and what he has been given in its place, he will now die for, yet the tone of the letter is one of joy.

When we hold on too tightly to any sense of security as if it belonged to us by right, it’s probably a pretty good indication that we have stolen it from God or from others. That might be an interesting perspective in the current gun debate: why do we cling so tightly to the right to have guns, to perpetrate violence? Could it be that we have stolen a sense of security by violence from those who can no longer feel secure? If God were to take that sense of security from us, what would happen? Maybe we ought to be paying attention to the fruit of justice in the vineyard, rather than the fortified wall around it.

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