Rev. Darryll Rasnake
It’s sometimes said that Jesus’ parables are ways to make truth more accessible, taking complicated theological ideas and putting them in terms that anyone can understand. But Jesus said that he told his parables for the opposite reason, so that the crowds might not understand. It’s a very puzzling statement, to be sure. But it’s a statement that fits the reality of how puzzling the parables can be when we enter fully into them as stories.
Sometimes I think that I spend most of my time misreading the Bible and therefore misunderstanding God. For example, I read a story or parable and I’m convinced that it’s not about me or us but it must be about them! You know, those people who act that way. At other times, I’m convinced of my own righteousness and every stone I turn over is just one more truth about how good I really am and perhaps how much God is really out to get me. I fail to see the goodness in others because I’m certain of their own failings, the splinter in their eye that the sawmill in my own keeps me from seeing.
In our politically charged, divided world, pastors are advised to just stay away. But isn’t that the real problem? That we are content with the divided nature of our society, the lines and boundaries that we draw so much that we aren’t willing to engage in meaningful dialogue?
When confronted, we are sometimes tempted to resolve our ambiguities by ignoring them. And when reading the stories of the Bible, we immediately to interpret them as being about someone else. In today’s parable, we immediately jump to an allegorical reading, we start with our expectations – with what we think we know is true. Then we look at the parts of the story – the characters, the objects, the actions – we decide which character or object in a parable is God, which one is Jesus, and what the other things in the parable represent, and we work toward a truth that is in harmony with our expectations.
But that’s not what the parables are for. Jesus’ parables aren't there to make complicated truths simple, but to complicate what seems to us to be simply true. To help us see the gray in our simplistic black and white, us versus them.
The parable in today's gospel is an excellent case in point. If we leap immediately and not very carefully to allegory, it’s a simple story. The landowner is God. God sends messengers to people (in particular, to Israel and thereby all Jews). The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill the son. So God is going to reject Israel and choose another people. But how well does the parable really fit that interpretation? How well does that interpretation fit the weight of the canon regarding the role of Israel?
In Isaiah 5, God sings of God’s love for us. As excellent as any Air Supply song from the 80’s, God is truly infatuated with his people. Let me sing a love song of my beloved.
Isaiah sings of how God, his beloved did everything possible to set up a healthy, thriving vineyard. The soil was fertile and cultivated; the stones were removed; only the finest quality vines were planted; a watchtower was built in the middle of the vineyard; and a wine vat was built in preparation for the harvesting and processing of the grapes. So far, so good. The love-song is most pleasant to the ears, and listeners’ heartstrings are touched by the nurturing care of the beloved. What a wonderful love-song this prophet Isaiah is serenading us with.
But wait, before you fall asleep with these tender words; listen to what follows. Surprise, surprise! Isaiah’s love-song is transformed into song of hard-hitting judgment and lament. Maybe we can gain the sense of such an unpleasant surprise by thinking of the love-song as a gentle, bedtime lullaby which is transformed into a condemning, deafening heavy metal rock-and-roll song.
In any case, the irony of the song comes to the forefront when Isaiah, speaking for God, asks the people of Jerusalem and Judah to judge between me, God, and my vineyard, the people of Jerusalem and Judah, them. God tells his people that there was nothing more he could do to guarantee the success of his vineyard. He had done everything that he could do. Implied here in the song is the human freedom that God gives us. In the song, God the beloved expects the best from his people: “he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” So, the consequences of freedom being misused or abused is that a well cared for vineyard becomes neglected and turns into a wasteland of briers and thorns.
The concluding verse of the song makes it abundantly clear that the vineyard represents God’s chosen people. God expected and hoped that his people would ensure that there was justice for everyone in the nation. Instead of justice, the wealthy class of politicians and business people were killing society’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens. Blood was on the hands of the rich and powerful members of society, since their wealth was gained by cheating and robbing society’s poorest class. God expected and hoped for righteousness from his people. Instead he heard a cry from the poor and oppressed. God expected his people to look after the poor and oppressed; after all, those who were now blessed with wealth and the good life—had they and their ancestors not cried out to the LORD when they were poor and oppressed as slaves in Egypt? Had God not heard their cries and delivered them from their Egyptian slavery? Why now had they abused their freedom and become selfish and greedy?
Love seems to go all wrong. What happens? Why does the flame seem to die? Perhaps it is God whose love has just run out? Maybe it is the inhabitants of the vineyard who turn away? Is the landowner of the parable really like the God of Israel revealed in scripture and proclaimed by Jesus?
Let’s start with the literal details we see in the parable, and examine them in light of what we know about the culture that gave the story to us. The setting of the parable is the estate of a very wealthy landowner. The landowner does not live on the land, and doesn’t do the work of planting and harvesting. Those who do that hard work are hired laborers and sharecroppers, who have to turn over most of what they grow to the landowner, who like the landowner in a similar parable, is a hard man, reaping what he did not sow. This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to get the goods that sustain his life of ease in the more cosmopolitan environment of the city.
Finally the farmers have had enough. But why? The next time the landowner sends one of his lackeys to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. I can almost hear the cheer that erupted from the audience as Jesus told this parable. Then the landowner sends another henchman to collect the rent, and the farmers again work together to send him away empty-handed. Another cheer goes up from the crowd hearing the story! And then one more person comes riding in on the dusty road from the city – the son of the landowner. The listening crowd’s anticipation grows.
Why would the son – the “beloved son”, probably an only child – come, instead of a messenger? Such a thing would usually indicate that the landowner had died, and his son was coming to survey the estate he had inherited. And here comes an opportunity for the farmers. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers do what real men would be expected to do in response to years of exploitation; they rise up and kill the son.
And then comes the twist ... the landowner is not dead, and he does precisely what he would be expected to do under such circumstances: he wreaks terrible revenge, slaughtering the farmers and replacing them with others, so he can return once more to the ease of the city while others earn his bread. I think it’s safe to say that no cheers erupted from the parable’s hearers at that point. The chief priests and the scribes in the audience, who came from the social class of the rich landowner and his hirelings, weren’t cheering; Jesus has just issued a scathing critique of their dealings with their fellow Israelites. The peasant farmers in the audience aren’t cheering; they have just heard a graphic reminder of how escalating the spiral of violence will result in more violence visited upon them and their children. For the landowner’s family and for the peasants alike, standing up for themselves, as their culture expected honorable families to do, brought everyone down.
But wait a minute. That’s what we thought the story would say. That’s the way we would end the story. But notice, if you will, that Jesus asks the question, “What will the landowner do? “
The people, us, scream for justice. NO mercy here, only getting even. Those sorry tenants, we’ll show them who’s the boss. Like the Pharisees that heard the parable so long ago, we are convinced that those people are responsible for those acts of violence against the landowner. And they should be punished!
In what ways are we living into the parable of Jesus’ life, the model Jesus shows us of care for those the world disregards and disregard of the world’s standards of strength and honor? Jesus challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, because we are them and they are us. Jesus challenges us to bless and honor the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.
We vow to do that in our Baptismal Covenant, and it’s the way of God’s people. When we say to someone who is being baptized, “you are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever,” that’s the way to which we are committing the baptized, and the commit we make anew for ourselves. But this way is also the truth and the life. It is the way to truly abundant life. For while exercise of might can bring us to the depths, it is the promise of an absolutely faithful and loving God that the lowly will be raised up; the stone deemed useless has become the keystone on which God’s kingdom is being built. That is the paradox we celebrate today.
In our day and age, has anything really changed? We hear stories of injustice and ill-gotten gain today too? Our planet is moaning and groaning due to the selfishness and greed of a minority of the world’s population. We, the us of every story, are certain that we are not like them! Just listen to every story on the nightly news, violence against one another in Egypt and Syria and our own cities, immigration, health care, marriage, politics. We are truly divided because we choose to be so.
If we take scripture seriously and believe that the stories of Jesus are really about us, there is a pressing question facing us today is this: Are we really a caring society? Are we ready to not make this about us and them?
In a caring society it is the God contract that guarantees a right to adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and health care, and a system that provides these equal services to all without any feeling of guilt on the part of the recipients. To quote a contemporary Isaiah, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can we not be sensitive to their plight?
Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done. One person—a Mother Teresa, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King, Jr.—one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. As long as some dies alone and unloved, we cannot live. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. In our world of scarcity where I must get mine so you can’t get yours, there is no us and we are them.
No one knows heartbreak like the Lord God knows heartbreak! God poured heart and soul into a people who were to bring freedom, justice and goodness to a broken world. Instead, they subjected their own brothers and sisters to oppression and turned their backs on what would bring hope and life to the world.
We. We did that. That’s God’s case against us, not them.
This parable is kind of crazy, when you think about it. Why on earth do these guys think that they're going to inherit the vineyard? Oh, I know, it's a legal possibility. But it's not like that landlord has disappeared. He's sent servants, and more servants, and then his son. Who's to say he doesn't have another son, or more servants, or an army, or at least a gang of thugs at his disposal to take care of these tenants. They're crazy thinking they can get something for nothing. They're crazy.
But they're not half so crazy as this landowner! Think about it. First he sends servants, and they're beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more -- not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants -- and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It's absolutely crazy. Who would do such a think?
No one...except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child than he does a businessman. It's crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
"What will the landlord do when he comes?" Jesus asks, and all they can imagine is violence: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death." But again, quite unexpected to us, it's not Jesus talking right now. They condemn themselves. That's part of Matthew's narrative brilliance, I suspect, to have his opponents voice their own condemnation. But it invites us to consider a different question: not what will that land owner do, but what did that land owner do. And to that question we have Jesus' own answer: the landowner sent his son, Jesus, to treat with all of us who have hoarded God's blessings for ourselves and not given God God's own due. And when we killed him, God raised him the dead, and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God's desperate, crazy love.
Oh, I know, Jesus goes on to finish this parable and accuse and condemn the Pharisees himself. But even at this point, we witness a God that is even more merciful than we can imagine. Amidst our cries for blood, God complies and Jesus slips free of our grasp for a moment, not simply to stand in judgment of so many of us. We would have used this story to validate our own causes, but instead it wants to introduce us to the desperate, crazy love of God, love offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more to all who will receive it.
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel, the good news. If we care to listen, we can give witness to the God made most clear to us in Jesus, who is greater than our fear and insecurity and manages again and again to twist free in order that we might taste the mercy of God.
God is crazy in love with us. Love is crazy and in the end God’s case is against us, not them.
God, just like the farmer, doesn’t give up easy. Most of us would agree that after the brutal action of the farmhands, most humans would have struck back with violence or given up. However, the farmer, instead, sent another group to collect what he thought was due, that is love in return. When this met the same resistance, he sent his son thinking that surely they would not do the same to him. But the good news of our faith is not even death stops God.
This story introduces us to the desperate, crazy love of God, love offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more to all who will receive it. In this story and in our lives God desperately reaches out to us. It is sort of crazy when you think about it. Choosing humanity to love and sacrifice your son for. God in sending his son promises to be with us. Because that is what you do when you are in love. God is crazy, desperately in love with us. AMEN.