|Today’s scripture readings:
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Let’s set the scene. Jesus has been traveling throughout Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing. All along he has been proclaiming that the poor, meek, and hungry are the ones who are blessed, and his inner circle consists of sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. A steadily growing band of followers has begun to form around him, intrigued by his radical, counter-cultural, and counter-intuitive message.
Now he has entered Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish religious establishment. Challenging the systems and practices that had come to define the Judaism of his time, Jesus may have been a popular figure in the Galilean backcountry where his ministry began. But, unsurprisingly, he does not receive a warm welcome from the religious leaders in Jerusalem who recognize that his ministry poses a direct challenge to their authority.
Jesus finds his way to the temple, where he angrily overturns the tables of the money changers who have set up shop inside, and accuses them of turning this house of prayer into a den of thieves. And it is here in the temple that the religious leaders challenge him. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask, “and who gave you this authority.” Jesus responds with a series of parables, the first of which you heard last week. If you weren’t here last week, you missed out. You’ll have to go read Pastor Lois’s sermon online.
This week we hear a second parable. A landowner plants a vineyard and does everything a person needs to do to make the venture successful. Then he leases it to tenants to run things while he’s away. At harvest time, the absentee landowner sends his servants to collect the share that belongs to him by virtue of his owning the land. But the tenants beat, stone, and kill them. The landowner sends more servants, and the same thing happens to them. Finally he sends his son, thinking they will surely respect him. And, of course, the ruthless tenants kill him too.
Having told the story, Jesus turns to the religious leaders in the temple: “What do you think the landowner will do to those tenants?” he asks. They reply, “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death and find new tenants for the vineyard.” Moments later they realize Jesus was talking about them—they are the wretches who should be put to a miserable death! They become enraged.
Of course the whole story is an allegory, where every word and image stands for something else. It’s not too difficult to decipher the meaning. God is the landowner. Israel is the vineyard God has planted. The Jewish religious leaders are the tenant farmers tasked with overseeing the vineyard Israel. The prophets who demanded justice and faithfulness are the servants of the landowner God who come to claim what is due. And, obviously, Jesus is the son who will be killed for calling for a new way of living and being as the people of God.
Jesus’ disdain is reserved for the tenants—for the Jewish leaders who have turned away from God and rejected God’s messengers who call for justice and righteousness. Rejecting God isn’t a problem unique to the religious authorities Jesus condemns in the temple. Rejecting God is something we still see all around us today. And I’m not just talking about people who deny the existence of God. There’s a more insidious form of this rejection that infects many of us and poisons our faith. Rejecting God is what’s happening when those of us who understand ourselves to be God’s people are unfaithful to God—when we begin to mistrust God’s promises and turn in on ourselves.
We are rejecting God when we cling to a mindset of scarcity that makes us believe there aren’t enough resources to go around, that we must hoard what we have for ourselves. This mindset teaches that being generous to others will make us poor.
We are rejecting God when we recognize injustice built into the systems and institutions of our society and falsely believe that there’s nothing we can do about it, that these systems are beyond repair. When we give into hopelessness we are denying the possibility of resurrection, doubting that God can transform death into life.
We are rejecting God when we reject some of God’s people for reasons of our own making. We humans—Christians included—have mastered the art of making people who are different from us into the “other.” Once we have “othered” another person, there’s no limit to the horrible things we can justify doing to them. We can become as brutal as those tenants in the parable who beat, stoned, and killed people. With Columbus Day approaching, we would do well to remember that we nearly wiped out the Native American peoples by defining them as the “other.” We continue to find ways to reject people on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, and myriad other characteristics that make us different from one another.
Given our penchant for rejecting God, we probably deserve to have our vineyard taken away and given to someone who will tend it more faithfully. But I just don’t think that’s the way God deals with God’s people, even with us miserable wretches who prove ourselves time and again to be untrustworthy and unfaithful.
I mean, consider the character of the landowner in today’s parable. This landowner is crazy! He sends a group of servants to collect his due, and they are murdered. Rather than pressing charges or hiring hitmen to execute justice, he foolishly sends more servants. And the same thing happens again. What did he expect? So why, after all that, would he send his son, expecting a different result? It’s crazy.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” That little cliché is attributed to Albert Einstein, though by all accounts he never said it. And it’s really not even close to the actual definition of insanity. But still, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result really is foolish. Maybe the point is that the landowner is unwilling to give up on the ones he has chosen to tend the vineyard, even when, time after time, they let him down.
I had one of those insane experiences this week of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting—or at least hoping for—a different result. Some of you know that Oby and I recently adopted a dog. We named her Ruth, but we call her Ruthie. She’s adorable, which you will see for yourself this afternoon if you come to the Blessing of the Animals Service.
Anyway, we’ve been taking her for lots of walks. At this point, taking the dog for a walk is still a novelty, but by the middle of winter I’m sure we’ll be dreading it. After the first couple of days, having my arm nearly ripped from my body as Ruthie pulled at the leash with more force than I ever imagined a 25-pound dog could muster, I decided it was time to leash-train the dog.
I read on the internet about an exercise called “Red Light, Green Light.” You start walking. When the dog reaches the end of the leash and pulls, you stop. Red light. You call the dog back to where you’re standing and reward her with a treat. Then, you start walking again and repeat this process. The dog gets to the end of the leash and pulls. Red light. Call her back. Give her a treat. Repeat.
Ruthie and I tried this one morning this week. 20 minutes and only half a block later, I was out of treats and ready to give up. We had barely moved. It was nothing but red lights. Doing the same thing over and over and over again, each time hoping for a different result. It never happened. It was hopeless. I’m sure the neighbors thought it was very entertaining. I was disgusted.
A few minutes later we were back in the house, and there was Ruthie, following me everywhere I went, laying her head on my lap while I ate breakfast, nuzzling under my hand to get me to pet her. I’m telling you, this dog is adorable. I can’t not love her.
I think this might be sort of how God feels about us. We do the same stupid things over and over again. We’re hopeless. God should be disgusted with us. And yet, God can’t not love us. Like the landowner’s son who is murdered by the farmer tenants, Jesus comes to us and we put him to death. And God actually doesn’t say, “I’m going to put these wretches to a miserable death.” Instead, the crucified Jesus rises and God offers forgiveness and we become ambassadors of reconciliation.
This is the God we worship—a God who is foolish enough to give us second and third chances, who doesn’t give up on us when we prove ourselves to be unfaithful but takes risks to be in relationship with us. That’s good news for us. It means that rather than fearing God’s judgment and trying to earn God’s love, we can live as people who are just grateful that God is foolish enough to love us even when we don’t deserve it. We can respond to God’s love by paying it forward. We can give others a glimpse of God’s love by granting them undeserved mercy and forgiveness.
Ruthie and I are going to keep working at this whole leash training thing. She may never get it. But I’ll love her just the same.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).
Marvin A. McMickle, “Matthew 21:33-46: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
David J. Lose, “Pentecost 17A – Crazy Love,” accessed October 2, 2014, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-17a-crazy-love/.
WorkingPreacher.org, “Sermon Brainwave Podcast #376 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost,” accessed October 2, 2014, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=544.