Here’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary gospel text along with thoughts it inspired. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a community of faith out there somewhere that would appreciate hearing a message based on my preliminary impressions. My inner cynic tells me it’s doubtful such a place exists; another small voice tells me to hang in there and have faith. We’ll see.
Matthew 21:23–32 (NRSV)
(Mk 11:27–33; Lk 20:1–8)
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The question remains, “What exactly is the vineyard?” Bundled into that question is another, “What exactly WAS the vineyard?” Jesus tells a story about about a father, two sons, and a vineyard that needs attention. To folks in the audience, the vineyard would resonate on several levels. One, it’s a dominant symbol of the agricultural economy. Lots and lots of folks make a living in the vineyard. Two, it’s a symbol and metaphor used by their prophets, especially around the time of the conquest of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian exile and the return from exile. Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” lays it out plainly:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry! Is 51: v. 8
The parable of the two sons, the dad and the vineyard is told in the context of the Jerusalem Temple, one of the great marvels of the ancient world. If God Almighty had a mailbox on earth, it was there.
The story is told in the midst of an audience that had been steeped in the religious/social/political/economic cultural traditions that basically held that God had chosen this particular group of people to be first among all the ethnic peoples of the world, had given them this geography as sacred geography, and had called them to be a light for the nations. Ummm, do we find similarly held assumptions in our time and place?
Isn’t our geography seen as the land that has been given by God to God’s chosen people, who are of a particular ethnicity and religion? (The Patriot’s Bible, anyone?)
When Jesus uses the vineyard touchstone to make his point, he is certainly calling on the prophetic understandings of justice and injustice that are wrapped in the vineyard metaphor. And he was speaking to a nation and within a nation about how the prevailing powers and authorities had become opposed to the new power and authority–and righteousness–he came to reveal. For 2000 years, Jesus has continued the revelation, shocking and pissing off those whose power and status quo are threatened, to the extent that they find ways to crucify him again and again. But the power of the resurrection keeps overcoming those powers, again and again. His word to the chief priests and elders packs the same wallop today as it did back then, as does the word of the prophet Isaiah to a nation and people that lost its way.
Don’t believe me?
What happens if you read the Isaiah passage outside the Georgia state execution chamber immediately after Troy Davis is killed by the state? What happens if you read this passage at the Wall St. sit-in? What happens if you read this passage alongside a poster-sized photo of the children executed by U.S. soldiers during a house raid in Iraq?
Who are the chief priests and elders of our culture? Likewise, who would be the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and what exactly is it that makes them first in the kingdom of God?
And finally, what exactly is the Kingdom of Heaven and how might we find the wiring that connects all these questions to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?
We can do a nice little 8-minute piece on the vineyard and the kingdom focusing on the church and its need to replenish a food pantry or provide coats for a coat drive. We can preach a nice, tidy little piece on the importance of repentance (metanoia) and how piety can often get in the way of growing in authentic faith.
But will it mean a heckuva lot when Monday comes and life keeps going down the same destructive path?
Maybe, just maybe, the tax collectors and prostitutes in our time are those folks who wouldn’t call themselves at all religious, maybe not even very spiritual. But they’re standing outside the execution chamber and they’re sitting in on Wall St., and they’re burning the midnight oil developing just alternatives to the injustices that bear down on and crush more and more people everyday. Perhaps it’s the gay teen who tragically committed suicide because he just couldn’t take the destructive bullying anymore.
Maybe these are first, like the first son in the parable, or a bit like those surprised sheep we find in the apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25.
What’s the vineyard? What’s the kingdom? Who’s first? Who deserves Jesus’ bitch-slap, like the one he laid on those chief priests and elders?